The death of anti-apartheid leader Steve Biko in 1977 was a low point in South Africa's history of oppression. The Biko case caused international outrage, since he was assumed to have been killed by his police captors. That assumption is now confirmed by the confessions of former police officers.
Their accounts of state-authorized murder have been coaxed to the surface by the country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, a body charged with uncovering the facts of an ugly and brutal past. Not only the Biko case, but many others, are being laid bare.
The commission's goal is to so expose the past that the country can come to terms with it and get on with a democratic, multiracial future. While few South Africans would argue with that goal, many are troubled by the commission's means - particularly its grant of amnesty to those deemed to have fully disclosed the truth.
For many, including the families of victims, amnesty seems a denial of justice. Understandably, they'd like to see the murderers tried, convicted, and punished. But the courts are no guarantee of punishment, as the recent trial of former defense minister Magnus Malan, a man thought to have been intimately involved in apartheid repression, indicated. The prosecution didn't make its case adequately, and he wasn't convicted.
Beyond the effectiveness of trials, what would be the outcome if retribution eclipsed reconciliation as a theme in South African civic life? Guilt for the horrors of apartheid spreads widely. Policemen, like those in the Biko case, did the actual beating and killing; their superiors either knew what they were doing, or gave them leave to do as they pleased. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission's reach is likely to extend even farther than it has so far. People still in government might be implicated.
Yet post-apartheid South Africa rests on an agreement between the formerly oppressed majority, represented by Nelson Mandela, and their white oppressors, represented by Frederik de Klerk. A spirit of forgiveness, embodied by Mr. Mandela, is crucial. As is the admission of grave wrongs by Mr. De Klerk. By mutual consent, the question of guilt and punishment was shelved so that this remarkable partnership could advance.
Such was the South African "miracle'' - that the country's rebirth could begin without massive upheaval. The past, however, had to be confronted - which is where the commission comes in. With revelations like those from Biko's killers, the magnitude of past crimes is beyond doubt. But so is the magnitude of the effort needed to restore to everyone the tangible benefits of full citizenship - including decent services, housing, and education. Follow-through on those items will be the ultimate measure of justice for a majority of South Africans.