South Africa Comes to Grips With Its Brutal Apartheid Past

Grass-roots groups urge victims and perpetrators of human-rights abuses to tell their stories

THE 70-plus people flowing into the social hall in gritty downtown Johannesburg greet one another as cheerily as a bunch of folks attending a garden-club brunch. But the informality and light atmosphere dissipates as the people one by one stand and explain why they have come to today's meeting.

Almost all are black. The tales they tell are of mistreatment and killings by police officers or soldiers, both black and white, during South Africa's apartheid era.

"The constabulary killed my son in 1988," an elderly lady tells the crowd.

A young man says he was arrested, tortured, and put into solitary confinement by the South African Defense Forces in 1986.

Another woman begins to tell how her son disappeared in 1992, but, overcome by grief, she collapses back into her seat. Her sister finishes the story.

This gathering of relatives of victims and survivors of human rights abuses is called the Khulumani Support Group. This and similar grass-roots programs are attempting to learn as much as possible about human-rights violations in South Africa during the apartheid era in order to speed the process of reconciliation between the races.

Khulumani wants to do at the local level what the federal government's Truth and Reconciliation Commission will do for high-profile cases at the national level. The commission will hear from perpetrators - to whom amnesty will be granted under certain conditions - as well as victims.

The commission was a result of the negotiations between the former ruling National Party and the African National Congress that led to South Africa's first multiracial elections in April 1994. Under an agreement made during the negotiations, amnesty would be given to those who committed political crimes during the past, if they agreed to give testimony.

The commission, which will begin April 15, will run for about two years and will hear cases that occurred between 1960 and 1993.

As the country gears up for the coming testimony, South Africans are glued to the trial of hard-line former defense minister Magnus Malan and 19 other former military officers. The men are charged with 13 murders in the 1980s during a violent campaign to maintain white rule. The trial is in recess until April 15.

Khulumani - which means "Let's speak out" in Zulu - is a sort of informal parallel process to the commission's work. It educates people about the commission, encourages them to come forward with their stories and gives them guidance on how the process works. The group will pass the stories on to the commission, which will include them in a final report.

"For us at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, programs like Khulumani are extremely important," says Fazel Randera, one of the 17 members of the commission.

"[The leaders of Khulumani] are convincing people to come forward to tell their stories, showing them how the process works, and giving them support as well. There is no way we could have gathered the amount of information they have been able to compile," Mr. Randera says.

"We provide people an opportunity to talk," says Maggie Friedman, a founder of Khulumani.

"Talking doesn't oblige them to do anything, but if they are interested in getting their story known, we'll help them. We just want the lesser-known victims to get a fair deal," she says.

Khulumani is funded by the Anglican church and the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, a Johannesburg-based conflict-resolution group.

As well as a fact-gathering body, Khulumani is also a support group. Many victims are referred to counseling; others are advised on how to apply for reparation.

Although at the moment Khulumani and other programs are being visited entirely by victims, some perpetrators may be drawn to them as well, according to Mdu Lembede, a spokesman for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission in KwaZulu-Natal, an strife-torn area swamped with applications for amnesty.

"Perpetrators are also victims in a way," Mr. Lembede says. "There are policemen and security force people out there who were made to do these things, and they have had to live with it inside themselves. All they need is a chance to get it off their chests. The Khulumani groups can bring those people to us, too. It is all part of the healing process, and the more people we hear from, the better off we'll be."

But right now it is the victims who are doing the talking. Nanana Mngomezulu, from Alexandra, a township near Johannesburg that saw a great deal of violence during the apartheid years, had a nephew who disappeared in 1992. Ms. Mngomezulu started keeping a diary in the late 1980s in which she recorded hundreds of cases of police abuses.

"I wrote down all the things the police would do," Mngomezulu says. "After a while it was obvious that they were causing some of the worst violence that was going on."

Mngomezulu says she wants the police who were stationed in Alexandra at the time to testify before the commission. But most of all she wants others to know what she went through and saw in the townships around Johannesburg.

"I know they were probably forced to do what they did, and I forgive them for it, but we all must know the truth," she says.

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