The recent acquittal of a former defense minister and other apartheid-era officials by a South African judge may have seemed a step backward from righting the wrongs of the past. The men were implicated in a horrific 1987 incident that involved the murder of 13 people, including seven children.
But the judicial ruling can be seen in another, more positive light. Due process of law is working in South Africa, under circumstances where emotion and political tensions could easily disrupt it. The judge in the case held that the prosecution had not forged a clear link between the former defense chief, Magnus Malan, and the murderous deeds of a government-trained squad that had targeted the home of an African National Congress activist near the city of Durban.
Further light has been shed on such deeds by the testimony of another top security figure from apartheid's last years. A former chief of South Africa's police, Gen. Johann van der Merwe, disclosed this week that he had ordered terroristic assaults on antiapartheid activists, and had done so with the approval of higher-ups in the government. During the 1980s, General van der Merwe was closely associated with the State Security Council, a body thought at the time to have more power than the Cabinet.
Van der Merwe testified before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which is specifically charged with getting to the bottom of apartheid-era crimes and human rights abuses. Malan's acquittal raised concerns that the commission's offer of amnesty in exhange for full disclosure from former officials would now get fewer takers. Van der Merwe's admissions should temper such concerns. The former police chief, who was testifying before the commission in the case of five lower-level police officers, has said he will himself seek amnesty. He has also implied that individuals above him in the former government may follow his lead.
Doubts about the progress of justice in South Africa are likely to persist. The decision regarding Malan and his cohorts brought outrage from many who suffered from government repression under apartheid. But the best-known sufferer, President Nelson Mandela, advised South Africans to respect the court's judgment.
Indeed, the Malan decision and the van der Merwe testimony mark initial steps in a process of justice that has much farther to go. Other cases will reach the courts. And many others will go before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which has begun using its subpoena power more forcefully.
South Africa is striving for a balance between confronting its past and staying on course toward greater democracy and prosperity. The courts and the commission are key elements in this balance, as is the new national charter now nearing completion. They provide a means of defusing still-simmering emotions from the past as the country moves toward greater economic and educational opportunity for all South Africans.
The decisions made by the courts and the commission along the way may not always be ideals of equity and justice, but the fact they're being made in an atmosphere of reason and relative goodwill is encouraging.