South Africa Starts Healing of Its Past


DURING South Africa's white minority rule, human rights lawyer Dullah Omar was a marked man, narrowly escaping being killed for his opposition to apartheid.

Today, as the nation's first nonwhite justice minister, Mr. Omar is calling upon those in the former apartheid regime who waged virtual war against blacks to confess - and their victims to forgive.

Two years after South Africa's first multiracial elections, the government of President Nelson Mandela wants to avoid any vengeful witch hunts for the three decades of human rights abuses during apartheid.

A new body, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, is entrusted with excavating the thousands of stories of torture and murder so South Africans can put the past to rest. Those who confess and prove their actions were politically motivated will be given amnesty.

It is a novel approach for a country where political hatreds have been traditionally settled with the gun or machete.

"I personally have forgiven those who ... tried to take my life," Omar says. "The healing process means that we South Africans should come clean ... but be generous."

Led by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel Peace Prize winner and anti-apartheid icon, the 17-member commission is due to hold its first hearings after Easter. The process, expected to last two years and record perhaps 100,000 cases, is in the spirit of reconciliation preached by President Mandela, himself jailed for 27 years.

But while some South Africans share Omar and Mandela's generous capacity to bury the past without any retribution, many others bitter about losing loved ones say the commission does not go far enough.

Prosecution, not absolution, is being demanded by many, such as the family of black-consciousness activist Steve Biko, who died of head injuries while in police custody in 1977.

They argue that the procedure is vague and compensation only symbolic. They say it will be easy for those who committed heinous crimes to convince the commission they were acting in the name of politics rather than financial gain or personal malice - and thus escape criminal prosecution.

"The perpetrators must be punished and not pardoned," Cyril Morolo, a lawyer representing the black activist Azanian People's Organization, bluntly says.

White rightists and the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party have also opposed the commission, for other reasons. They claim it will be biased in favor of Mandela's African National Congress, which was responsible for hundreds if not thousands of killings. The commission, for instance, is unlikely to focus much on the ANC-IFP rivalry that killed some 10,000 people in the Zulu heartland over the past decade.

Several high-ranking former members of the security forces are expected not to apply for amnesty, arguing that their actions at the time were fully within the law.

Deputy President F.W. de Klerk, Mandela's predecessor whose government allegedly ordered political murders, says it is important to understand why the former regime acted the way it did. He is drafting a submission on apartheid rule that he says will put the conflict into perspective and help the commission comprehend the policies adopted.

To get amnesty - so far 2,700 have applied - applications must be sent in before Dec. 14. The forms are detailed, listing dates and places of crimes. If applicants say their lives are in danger, hearings will be in private. Amnesties granted will be made public.

Archbishop Tutu said that because there were so many cases, it would be impossible to investigate them all in depth. Sometimes just a written account will suffice.

Tutu is convinced most South Africans have forgiveness in their hearts, although there will invariably be some seeking vengeance. Worrying, however, are the death threats against some commission members.

"Many people walking around were tortured; they know their torturers. But they have not gone around carrying this awful truth seeking revenge," Tutu told the Monitor. "There will be those who may [seek revenge] but the vast majority? No. We're staking our lives on it."

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