A Crucial Few Weeks for South Africa's Truth Seekers

This month, the 17 members of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) began the last stage of their work: reviewing the 8,000 applications for amnesty from those who have confessed violations of human rights. On Aug. 4, in one of the first significant acts, the TRC granted Dirk Coetzee, former leader of a notorious hit squad, amnesty from prosecution in one killing.

Designed to expose and establish responsibility for the atrocities of the apartheid era (prior to 1994), the TRC was established by law in July 1995 and began its work in April 1996. Its mandate authorized it over two years to (1) collect and investigate victims' accounts of violations; (2) grant amnesty for those who made confessions; and (3) make recommendations for reparations. In the first phase of its work, the commission heard more than 10,000 testimonies from victims and their relatives.

The TRC was modeled on a similar commission formed after democracy was reestablished in Chile in 1990, but with differences. In Chile, the focus was on what had happened to several thousand "disappeared." In South Africa, the fate of murder victims was generally known; the commission's task was to find out who had been responsible. The TRC, moreover, was given subpoena power.

Although South Africa's Constitutional Court has upheld the commission on the amnesty question, not everyone in the country is pleased with the TRC and its work. The authority to grant amnesty was challenged by those who argue that knowing what happened is not enough. Reconciliation and amnesty prevent trials that would bring true justice. Supporters of the commission contend that trials would only revive and perpetuate old wounds, preventing ultimate healing in the body politic.

The fairness of the commission, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a supporter of the African National Congress (ANC), has been questioned. Deputy President Frederik de Klerk, unhappy with Archbishop Tutu's public criticism of his testimony, recently withdrew his cooperation and threatened to sue the TRC. Last week, the Inkatha Freedom Party broke off cooperation with the commission in KwaZulu/Natal, expressing resentment at testimony linking Inkatha to assassination squads.

Commission supporters insist that the membership of seven blacks, two coloreds, two Indians, and six whites, including a member of an ultra-nationalist Afrikaner group, ensures fair judgments. They point out, also, that ANC members as well as members of the previous government have acknowledged responsibility for terrorist acts. The nation's Deputy President Thabo Mbeki, President Nelson Mandela's heir apparent, is among those confessing human rights violations and applying for amnesty.

Finally, the question arises of official responsibility for the acts of violence perpetrated during the apartheid era. Witnesses have charged that at least some of the deaths previously laid to illness, suicide, or the actions of ANC operatives were instigated and carried out by South African police and military elements and by assassination squads linked to the Inkatha Freedom Party.

Mr. De Klerk insists that he did not order or know of these incidents - that they must have been the result of "bad apples" in the system. For him to take responsibility would be to acknowledge that the government carried out murder as part of policy, an admission few high officials are prepared to make.

Will the TRC ultimately lay the tensions and hatreds of the past to rest in South Africa? In Chile, the longer term results of that country's counterpart appear to be favorable. Drawn-out trials and recriminations were avoided. In South Africa, the jury is still out; the next few weeks will be critical. The results of the amnesty review will be important in meeting public concerns about fairness and justice. And, clearly, President Mandela's prestige will lend credibility to the ultimate conclusions.

Despite difficulties, the TRC is proceeding on a courageous path to promote reconciliation in a troubled land. It is probably too much to expect that in any country so plagued by deep divisions, a single commission can bring total healing. But, given the alternatives of inaction or prolonged and emotional trials, the commission seems the best approach.

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