SOUTH Africa's democratically elected government is coming under pressure from churches, the judiciary, and human rights groups to set up a commission to expose the crimes of the apartheid era and begin a healing process.
``The first step that our new Parliament should take is to set up a commission to officially expose the past,'' says Judge Richard Goldstone, chairman of the commission on the causes of political violence.
``It should hear evidence from the victims of human rights abuses and examine every detail of the system responsible for abuses ... whether by members of the security forces or in the African National Congress's [detention] camps [in exile],'' he said last week at University of Natal.
Judge Goldstone's call has struck a sensitive nerve in a society uncertain about delving too deeply into the past. It has provoked anxiety among security forces and unleashed a lively debate on the scope of such an inquiry - who would conduct it and whether it would be public or secret.
Goldstone proposes a truth and reconciliation commission similar to that established in Chile in 1990 when democracy was restored after almost 20 years of right-wing military rule. Trying to bury South Africa's past would be a recipe for national discontent and almost certainly result in a repeat of abuses, the judge says.
Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu backs the idea of a broad initiative to allow for confession, forgiveness, and restitution to the victims of apartheid where possible.
``The consequences of apartheid cannot be wiped away simply by democratic decisionmaking structures or even by large sums of money for housing, education, health, and job creation,'' he said recently. ``Confession will pour balm on the wounds of the victims ... but it is also important to the well-being of the perpetrators, for their own rehabilitation as human beings.''
Deputy President Frederik de Klerk, who has apologized for injustices under apartheid, still maintains it was a well-intentioned experiment that went wrong.
During the four-year state of emergency imposed in June 1986, tens of thousands were subjected to arbitrary detention, and many activists were maimed, tortured, and killed. Many anti-apartheid activists committed crimes in their struggle to end white rule, and the ANC has acknowledged that torture and murders took place in the detention camps in exile in the 1980s.
Mandela supports amnesty
The complex question of a general amnesty for political offenders has been dealt with in a selective way since ANC leaders returned from exile in June 1990, and as human rights abuses by the security forces have become known. In terms of an October 1990 agreement, returning ANC members had to seek indemnity from prosecution - on the basis of confidential disclosure - for specific acts committed.
During the election campaign last month, President Nelson Mandela suggested the same formula be applied to state officials who want indemnity from prosecution for criminal acts committed prior to October 1990. But he also stressed he did not envisage Nuremburg-type trials or a public witch hunt that would lead to widespread fear in the ranks of security forces and state officials.
Mr. De Klerk is opposed to any public inquiry, but agrees with Mandela's suggested formula for granting amnesty.
Mandela said that the new Parliament, which starts a four-week session on May 24, would as a matter of priority consider the position of those who had committed political crimes between October 1990 and December 1993. Those who had committed crimes since December 1993 would be subject to the law, Mandela said.
But a public debate on the amnesty issue has focused on the need for a much broader initiative to promote healing and reconciliation by allowing apartheid victims to detail crimes committed against them.
Chile as `the best model'
Goldstone says the Chilean commission, which had nine months to gather information nationwide but did not investigate and name the perpetrators, is the best model for the South African situation.
``It presented a clear picture of institutional responsibility for past abuses,'' he says. ``It started the healing process by hearing the evidence of victims and officially acknowledging what was done to them by the state.''
Jakkie Cilliers, director of the independent Institute for Defense Politics in Johannesburg, says that two separate bodies are needed - one to regulate the granting of indemnity to security force members and a sociological commission to detail the political context in which the crimes were committed.
``It is a massive social engineering exercise that has to be examined,'' he says. ``Those members of the security forces who committed crimes did so under a political mandate, and so their crimes have to be put in context. We were all guilty to a lesser or greater degree.''
Saths Cooper, director of the Family Institute in Johannesburg, says a broad commission allowing the victims to articulate their suffering is essential for reconciliation. ``The degree of hurt, bitterness, and anger is still palpable,'' he says. ``No amount of legislation will remove that.''
Such an exercise would promote accountability in the future and place a check on unbridled political power, he adds. ``The hearings could be run live on television for several hours three days a week.''
Cooper says the process should be enabled by the state, but independently run.