S. Africa, Past and Future

LIKE other countries making the transition to democracy, South Africa carries a burden of injustice and resentment from the past. But it's doing a better job than most of preparing to lift that burden.

The country's Truth and Reconciliation Commission is aptly named. It is designed to get at the truth of as many of the thousands of cases of apartheid-era mistreatment, torture, and death as it can within its 18-month mandate. That work begins with formal hearings after Easter. At the helm will be Archbishop Desmond Tutu, an anti-apartheid hero respected for his fairness and his readiness to criticize human rights failings on all sides.

Reconciliation is the other half of the commission's purpose. It will have the option of recommending either amnesty for, or prosecution of, those accused. Amnesty is likely to hinge on an individual's readiness to testify and, in many cases, to admit wrongdoing.

That issue of acknowledging guilt figures prominently in the Magnus Malan case, currently being tried in South Africa. General Malan was defense minister in 1987 when a gang of gunmen burst into the home of an African National Congress (ANC) supporter in Natal Province and massacred 13 people, most of them sleeping children.

The murderers were allied with the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party, the ANC's bitter rival. Prosecutors hold that the government, notably Malan and his staff, trained the Inkatha hit men and were responsible for their activities. Testimony from an ex-soldier involved in the Natal operation has supported that contention.

This case probes deep into the former government's desperate schemes to prop up apartheid. It reaches to top levels and could embarrass, or even implicate, figures like Inkatha's Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi and Frederik de Klerk, the country's former leader and now deputy president in Nelson Mandela's coalition. Ongoing tension between Inkatha and the ANC heightens sensitivities.

Malan could have applied to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for amnesty, but firmly denies guilt and has instead chosen a trial. President Mandela has been asked to intervene in the case and avoid the dark revelations it could unleash. He has refused, saying the justice process should run its course.

That's wise. The people of South Africa have to see that their judicial machinery can work even in this politically charged instance. They also must honestly face the horrors of their recent history in order to lay them aside and get on with the monumental work of building a functioning non-racial democracy.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission and the Malan trial both could be important stones in that structure.

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