JOHANNESBURG — In a triumph for those who say the lure of amnesty is necessary to properly excavate a country's brutal past, four former South African police officers have confessed to killing famed black activist Steve Biko 20 years ago.
Ever since the Truth and Reconciliation Commission began operating a year ago to heal the wounds of the fractured nation, the country has tottered in a debate between the merits of prosecuting former human rights abusers or forgiving them if they come clean.
Wringing confessions from the killers of Mr. Biko - the most famous apartheid-era martyr, whose death was surrounded by murky coverups - was for commission members a prize in their mission to get a full picture of past dirty secrets.
"Our investigative work, combined with the prospect of amnesty, has persuaded those who say they were involved in perpetrating the acts to come forward for the first time," said a highly pleased Alex Boraine, the Truth Commission's deputy chairman, on Tuesday.
South Africa's former white minority rulers waged virtual war against anti-apartheid activists, among them President Nelson Mandela, who was jailed for nearly three decades.
Providing amnesty for apartheid-era crimes was part of the negotiated settlement that led to black majority rule in April 1994 elections. Reconciliation is a fundamental philosophy of Mr. Mandela and Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who heads the Truth Commission.
Their reasoning is that if the truth finally emerges, the nation can close the violent chapter. Amnesty helps to avoid witchhunts, they say.
Their logic is that if one person will confess, that will lead to further confessions, and so on until the top decisionmakers are exposed.
But for the anguished families of many victims, forgiveness is impossible if the killers go free.
Biko's family, for one, has repeatedly called for prosecution rather than pardons. Last year, his widow and the families of two other apartheid victims went to the highest court in the land to challenge the amnesty procedure. They lost the case.
For the commission, the Biko confessions were a breakthrough and the highest-profile case so far. The Black Consciousness Movement leader died on Sept. 12, 1977, from head injuries received while in police detention in the city of Port Elizabeth. The circumstances were never made clear, and no one was held responsible for his death. Police claimed the injuries were self-inflicted.
Biko was the most prominent anti-apartheid activist to die in police hands. His death made him an icon of the struggle, second only to Mandela, and helped galvanize world opinion against the apartheid regime. His life inspired several books and the 1987 movie "Cry Freedom."
Other amnesty applications announced on Tuesday involved the notorious killings in the 1980s of nine activists, including prominent activist Matthew Goniwe, who was murdered in 1985 along with three others. They became known as the Cradock Four.
Commission officials expect further amnesty applications to pour in.
Until recently, former security force members were reluctant to come forward. The amnesty process was believed to have suffered a setback when former Defense Minister Magnus Malan was acquitted by a court last year of murder charges. He urged other former security officers to risk prosecution rather than take the amnesty route, and it looked as if many would follow his example.
But then in December, the commission pardoned a white ex-police officer convicted of 11 political murders and sentenced to 30 years in prison.
That, coupled with the decision by the former head of police, Gen. Johann van der Merwe, to seek amnesty seems to have prompted a flood of amnesty applications.
The commission's amnesty committee has doubled its staff to cope with the increased workload. As of the middle of January, it had received about 4,500 amnesty applications.
Those who confess and can prove their actions were politically motivated will be given amnesty. Motive, context, the gravity and objective of the crime, and especially whether it had the approval of a political organization are all weighed. The line taken by many seeking amnesty is that they were merely following orders in what was a virtual state of war. So far, about 1,500 applicants have been rejected, and 15 approved.
What may also have encouraged more people to seek pardons was Mandela's controversial decision last month to extend the amnesty date to cover crimes up to May 10, 1994. The cutoff was previously December 1993. This new date covers right-wing bombers who tried to sabotage the 1994 elections, and critics of the decision say it emboldened right-wing bombers who struck on Christmas Eve and Jan. 5.
Still elusive are applications from senior cabinet members of the ex-regime. So far only former Law and Order Minister Adriaan Vlok has applied for amnesty.
But revelations of a report by Lt. Gen. Pierre Steyn, former defense force chief of staff, could put some members of former President F.W. de Klerk's Cabinet at risk for dirty-tricks coverups.
The commission claims that Mr. De Klerk ignored General Steyn's recommendations that some 60 officers, including top generals, be investigated. De Klerk has denied being part of a coverup.