THE most senior member of South Africa's former apartheid government is due in court today to face charges linked to atrocities from a more brutal era.
The court action against former Defense Minister Magnus Malan and 10 senior former military officials over the murder of 13 people in 1987 is aimed at bringing the guilty to trial over past atrocities.
But the move, which indicates a toughness by the new black majority government, has stirred fears of a violent backlash that could jeopardize a new spirit of reconciliation among former foes.
''This is another step which shows the hardening of the ANC's attitudes. To the political right it comes as a vast surprise,'' said William Sass, a retired military brigadier who is now deputy director of the Institute for Defence Policy research center outside Johannesburg.
''I think there's a likelihood of a violent reaction, such as by [rank-and-file] supporters of the [Zulu-led] Inkatha Freedom Party.''
When the murders took place in January 1987 in KwaMakhutha, in the KwaZulu-Natal region, black and white South Africans were at a virtual state of war. The white minority government was trying to wipe out the African National Congress and other liberation groups. Under a state of emergency, 30,000 people were detained without trial and thousands others tortured, murdered, or disappeared.
In turn, the ANC killed hundreds with bombs and guns. Thousands died in its rivalry with Inkatha, which had support of some white security forces.
Mandela's efforts at unity...
Since the ANC came to power 18 months ago, President Nelson Mandela, himself a political prisoner for 27 years, has tried to bury old racial animosities and heal a fractured nation.
A Truth and Reconciliation Commission was signed into law in July to investigate apartheid crimes and offer amnesty to those who confess. It is due to begin operating soon, and many, including Malan, have questioned why his case has not been deferred until then. They claim political motivations are at stake, noting that news of the court appearance was leaked just before local elections.
The murder charges in the Malan case are expected to be linked to the alleged setting-up of paramilitary forces in KwaZulu-Natal, which later became hit squads against ANC activists.
Over the weekend, Malan insisted on his innocence, blaming ''political foul play'' and ''witch hunts'' by the ANC-led government. He demanded to know why indemnities granted to ANC members in the transition to democracy were not being extended to former military men like himself.
Other old proponents of apartheid who now have a cordial working relationship with Mandela are also worried. The matter raises the possibility that other former Cabinet officials, including former Presidents P.W. Botha and F.W. de Klerk, who is now a deputy president, could possibly be implicated, too.
Prominent among those calling for bygones to be bygones is former military leader Gen. Constand Viljoen, who once threatened civil war if a black government came to power and now heads the moderate right.
He said on Tuesday he would seek an interdict in the Supreme Court to prevent the arrests on the grounds that they contravened a national-reconciliation clause in the interim constitution. ANC officials said he didn't have a sound case.
Defenders of the court action dismiss the likelihood of political motivations. They note that KwaZulu-Natal Attorney General Tim McNally, who ordered the arrests, is normally conservative and cautious regarding prosecution of security forces of previous regimes.
... and his tough stance
What is clear, however, is an increasingly tough stance against right-wingers by Mandela. Last week he rejected Mr. Viljoen's appeal to change the amnesty cut-off date for politically motivated crimes which would have allowed 26 right-wing bombers to walk free.
Lawyers for Human Rights (LHR), a group that has sided with victims of apartheid abuses, points out that the Commission has not yet been set up. When it does begin operating, it will not necessarily supercede ordinary criminal proceedings for charges like murder.
Those seeking amnesty must apply for it at the Commission - and disclose their actions. Until now, Malan indicated he did not intend to do so because he had committed no crime. If he changes his mind, he would have to request a postponement of a criminal trial to make an amnesty application to the Commission.
LHR spokeswoman Laura Pollecutt says Mr. McNally did the right thing. ''In the interest of serving what is the public's right to the truth, the trial should go ahead. Blanket indemnity will not do this. Cries from the far right for total indemnity do not bode well for the objectives of the Truth Commission, one of which is full disclosure.