HUMAN rights organizations have hailed the decision by South Africa's government of national unity to set up a Commission of Truth and Reconciliation to deal with political offenses committed during the apartheid era.
``I welcome the emphasis on disclosure and acknowledgment by the state,'' says Alex Boraine, director of the Institute for a Democratic Alternative for South Africa, a pro-democracy group that had been calling for a truth commission.
Justice Minister Dullah Omar said Tuesday that in the case of ``gross violations of human rights,'' the identity of the victims and the perpetrators - and a detailed account of what happened - would be revealed.
``I think it will ensure that we do not make the same mistakes again, and that the rule of law will be protected,'' Mr. Boraine says, noting that the commission would have the power to make recommendations on compensation to victims of human rights abuses.
But right-wing groups have condemned the government plan and warned that any discrimination against the right wing in the granting of amnesty and indemnity from prosecution would not lead to peace in the country.
President Nelson Mandela, who has been criticized by some of his followers for negotiating with the right wing, vowed on Tuesday to continue talks with right-wing groups about an Afrikaner homeland and other issues.
``Our obligation is to draw their attention to those issues that bind us, not separate us,'' he said at a ceremony in Johannesburg, where he received a peace award.
Jakkie Cilliers, director of the Institute for Defense Politics in Johannesburg, says he welcomes the proposed commission and does not think it would create ``undue anxiety'' in the ranks of the security forces.
``I think it is a good thing that government has taken a decision and ended the speculation,'' Mr. Cilliers says. ``But I fear that it could develop into a witch hunt for those who carried out actions under orders rather than those who gave the orders.''
Boraine says it was unlikely that security force members would come forward in large numbers, but they could be implicated by third parties who had knowledge of their crimes and were granted indemnity from prosecution. If implicated parties had not come forward by the cut-off date for applications, their names could be forwarded to the attorney general by the commission for consideration for prosecution, he says.
``Those who fail to come forward by the cut-off date for applications will be subject to prosecution,'' says Paula McBride of the Lawyers for Human Rights in Pretoria.
Mr. Omar said on Tuesday that the commission would have a limited life - 18 months or two years - and a fixed cut-off date for amnesty and indemnity applications.
It will be cast in legislation after broad consultation with interested parties, who will have until June 30 to make submissions. It is likely that the legislation will be introduced in Parliament during its next session, which begins on June 22.
``If the wounds of the past are to be healed ... disclosure of the truth and its acknowledgment are essential,'' Omar said. ``We cannot forgive on behalf of victims, nor do we have the moral right to do so. It is the victims themselves who must speak.''
Names are likely to be published in a final report submitted by the commission rather than in public hearings, human rights lawyers say. President Mandela will have the final say on granting amnesty and indemnity.
The proposed commission, which would be made up of ``eminent and respected'' South Africans, will deal with applications for amnesty for those committing crimes before Dec. 5 last year.
Indemnity from prosecution will be granted for specified crimes in return for disclosure to the commission. About 13,000 anti-apartheid activists have been granted indemnity or amnesty since 1990.
Omar said that about 200 outstanding applications for amnesty, which had been submitted under legislation introduced by the former government in 1990 and 1992, would be submitted to a committee and dealt with as a matter of priority.
In October 1992, former President Frederik de Klerk pushed a law through Parliament that extended indemnity to agents of the state. It was disclosed last weekend that Mr. De Klerk granted indemnity to several highly controversial members of the security forces and commuted the death sentence of three right-wingers shortly before the April all-race elections.
Those granted amnesty include top officials of the defunct Civil Co-operation Bureau, a highly secretive, dirty-tricks department of the military that sanctioned the murder of anti-apartheid activists.
De Klerk said he granted the indemnity under a multiparty agreement that the former National Party government would continue governing the country until a formal transfer of power. He also commuted the sentences of about 100 convicted prisoners from groups including the African National Congress and Inkatha Freedom Party.
Omar said that the indemnities and sentence reductions by De Klerk had been frozen, and the matter referred to Mandela.