Forging a New S. Africa With Contrition, Mercy

Truth and Reconciliation Commission ended bulk of its work June 30. Some 7,500 people applied for amnesty.

Limpho Hani is coping. For the moment that is all she will say. But her voice, as taut and neat as her lime-toned suit, resonates with an angry nervousness she won't express in words.

Five years ago, Chris Hani, the Communist Party leader whose popular appeal nearly rivaled President Nelson Mandela's, was gunned down in his driveway a year before South Africa's first democratic elections.

Now the widow faces the possibility of another painful sacrifice - this time, she is told, for her country's fragile future. For several weeks she sat silently through public hearings as two assassins described how they hoped to sow anarchy by killing her husband, how one of them drank tea and went shopping to celebrate the accomplished hit.

And now Ms. Hani and her husband's followers wait on tenterhooks to see if, by the discomforting calculus of South Africa's experiment in social healing, they will be asked to watch the killers go free - to accommodate them as fellow citizens, perhaps even to forgive them.

"If Janusz Walus and Clive Derby-Lewis are given amnesty" for killing Hani, says Charles Villa-Vicencio, TRC research director, "the nation will have to sit down again and acknowledge the price it chose to pay for peace and coexistence."

Healing the past

The Hani story is a crucial test case of the principles behind South Africa's groundbreaking attempt to expunge its painful past. But it is also just one of thousands. As part of its carefully negotiated transition from apartheid to democracy earlier this decade, the country established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate gross human rights violations committed between March 1, 1960, a few weeks before police fatally shot 69 black protesters in the township of Sharpeville, and May 10, 1994, when Mr. Mandela was inaugurated as president.

The commission reflected a decision by South African leaders of various backgrounds to expose the evils in their past - not as an excuse for retribution - but in the theory that the truth would free the country to create a just and equitable future. Instead of launching full-scale witch hunts and demanding punishment for atrocities committed by both sides, the decision sought to establish post-apartheid South Africa on a moral foundation - one the country could build on.

Unlike the 13-odd truth commissions that preceded it in other countries, the TRC was vested with unprecedented powers to subpoena perpetrators, grant amnesty in exchange for full disclosure of politically motivated acts, and approve reparations for victims.

For two years the TRC has held hearings in plush-carpeted offices and crowded township halls across the country. It gave victims an opportunity to tell their stories for the first time. It held special inquiries on the roles of the media, judiciary, medical community, and business in perpetuating apartheid. Some 20,000 victims made submissions to the TRC, and 7,500 others applied for amnesty.

Beyond all other provisions, the amnesty grant is the most important. Perpetrators who make full disclosures of politically motivated acts may gain immunity from prosecution.

TRC Commissioner Dumisa Ntsebeza argues that, beyond encouraging the flow of facts about the apartheid era, amnesty requires acknowledgment of wrongdoing, which is critical to the TRC's notion of reconciliation: "Applicants testify in public. Such an exposure is its own punishment, and thus an element of justice itself."

But for people like Hani, what serves the collective good often strains the individual. Perpetrators are not required to show remorse, and many have not. While they live with the consequences of past abuses, the aggrieved are asked to accept their antagonists' freedom.

Given only two years to complete its work, the commission shut down all but its research and amnesty work on Tuesday. In October, it will issue a final report intended to present the fullest possible picture of the apartheid era.

Already, however, the panel has become a model for truthseeking in other conflict zones. Rwanda's genocide law allows prisoners to confess for lighter sentences, an echo of the TRC's amnesty provision. "When people think of truth commissions, they think of the TRC," says Priscilla Hayner, a researcher based in New York who is writing a book on such panels.

But South Africa has also shown the limitations of such commissions.

Despite its strengths, the commission was overburdened from the outset.

Investigators had neither the time nor resources to probe cases thoroughly. Many aspects of apartheid, such as the role of parliament, were neglected. Case workers were unable to build awareness of the TRC's purpose in many of the black townships, and many residents now feel they missed an opportunity to apply for reparations.

Such limitations, along with the commission's subjudicial standards of proof, created the impression of bias for various communities.

In a poll conducted in March, research organization MarkData found that, while 62 percent of blacks thought the TRC was fair, only 18 percent of whites shared that view. Some 59 percent of whites felt the TRC tilted in favor of the ruling African National Congress, while 55 percent felt the process created more hostility than reconciliation.

"One of the things South Africa teaches us is that we can't expect the truth process to be the be all and end all," Ms. Hayner says. "South Africa would be different had there been no TRC. It has changed the country and its understanding of its past. But you still see victims unhappy."

Mr. Villa-Vicencio agrees. "To suggest that this commission could reconcile a nation that has been torn apart for centuries in two years is absurd," he says. "The most it can do is lay a foundation on which reconciliation can be built."

Meaning of reconciliation

But not everyone agrees that reconciliation means acknowledgment and forgiveness. While blacks often speak of the African principle of ubuntu - the notion, as Archbishop Desmond Tutu describes it, that "my humanity is caught up in your humanity" - many South Africans speak about more practical definitions of reconciliation.

Addressing Parliament on May 29, Deputy President Thabo Mbeki argued that "a major component ... of reconciliation and nation-building is defined by and derives from the material conditions ... which have divided our country into two nations, the one black and the other white."

For the man likely to become the next president of South Africa, reconciliation means, above all, economic transformation - over which the TRC has little influence. For the majority of impoverished blacks, housing, health care, and education are still painfully inadequate.

Across the color divide, Afrikaaners - whose leaders created apartheid - reconciliation essentially means minority rights. "Self-determination is a prerequisite of reconciliation," says Volksfront Party leader Constance Viljoen, a former general who advocates creating an Afrikaaner homeland.

And for many victims of apartheid abuses, reconciliation means redressing the damage. "It is not fair to ask me to forgive," says Katherine Mlangeni, whose son was killed in 1991 by a parcel bomb sent by a covert police unit.

Bheki Mlangeni was a lawyer and ANC activist with four children. After he died, his mother turned her house into a shebeen, or speakeasy, to earn enough money. "It is painful every day. Who will help the children?"

The TRC has a provision for reparations for victims. But so far, no individuals have received any money. Commissioners are still seeking budget commitments from the government. A onetime cash grant will do little, victim advocates say. Long-term community structures need to be built to prevent the damage of abuses from passing from one generation to another.

"The lowest, most practical level of reconciliation is coexistence," Villa-Vicencio says. "Maybe that is where we start. The nation as a whole is no longer killing its enemies ... but the religious notion of reconciliation happens or fails at the individual level.

"In 20 years," he says, "when an old lady in KwaZulu/Natal [Province] is asked if the TRC worked, I believe she will answer on the basis not of whether the perpetrator apologized ... but on the basis of her material standard of living."

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