It should have been a peak moment for South Africa's 30-month-old Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC). But people close to it were wondering whether even high-level testimony challenging two former presidents might be too little, too late as the investigations were scheduled to finish at the end of the month.
This week in a hushed room in Pretoria, South Africa, former police minister Adriaan Vlok publicly testified that he had ordered the 1988 bombing of a church building in Johannesburg on the direct instructions of then President P.W. Botha.
Later came a report that Mr. Vlok had also said he told President F.W. de Klerk about such operations before the latter's own term began. The Nobel Peace Prize-winner has denied such knowledge, and the TRC could call him back for further testimony, an official said.
For the first time, a chain of direct evidence linked a crime carried out by covert apartheid security forces to Mr. Botha, a champion of white rule who to this day denies knowledge of any crime whatsoever.
For the commission, charged with investigating the thousands of violent political crimes committed in the struggle for and against apartheid, this was a vital smoking gun. But critics say it could be too late. The commission will have to begin compiling its final report, due in October, with many questions still unanswered.
According to Piers Pigou, a former commission investigator, lack of time, resources, and legal clout has prevented the commission from following up on myriad leads it has turned up in hundreds of cases of serious abuse of human rights.
Amnesty brings evidence
Chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the TRC has no power to prosecute, but its power to grant amnesty to political offenders has turned up mounds of fresh evidence. In order to be assured of amnesty, offenders must give a full account of their crime and also establish a political motive: It was the 1996 confession of a police bombing team, threatened by imminent prosecution, that eventually led to Vlok implicating his old boss Botha this week.
The TRC has at last managed to establish a case that Botha is lying when he denies any knowledge of wrongdoing. But Pigou points out that it has failed to flesh out longstanding claims that the apartheid government used its police, army, and public service to wage a covert dirty war against anti-apartheid activists, the African National Congress, and the black population in general.
Pigou says that amnesty applications received so far all seem to be driven by the fear of imminent prosecution, and - like Mr. Vlok's own application - they relate to specific acts, and name the minimum number of accomplices.
State involvement in the wave of "third force" black-on-black violence, which claimed up to 20,000 lives in the early 1990s, has not even been touched upon, he says.
Cart before the horse
"In some respects, the cart has been put before the horse," Pigou says. "The kind of revelation that has come out in the amnesty hearings needs to be put to Botha and [his successor as president] F.W. de Klerk and the other senior apartheid leaders again. If there was another year and a half left to investigate, on the basis of the information we've already received we could really reach some of the goals that the TRC was given."
While the government in theory could find some way for the commission's work to continue after the report is compiled, Pigou says there is no longer much will to continue probing the past.
University of Cape Town political scientist Robert Schrire agrees. He points out the commission was set up as part of a pre-1994 compromise, which balanced the majority's desire for justice against worries that the white-dominated security forces and public service would sabotage the transformation to majority rule if they faced prosecution for their crimes.
But since then. white political power has "imploded," and most whites now accept that apartheid was an evil system whose leaders cheated and killed. So the government may already feel that the commission has served its purpose.
"The TRC's day has passed, even before it gives in its report," says Professor Schrire.
"I think it's really written for history and in that sense it will be a valuable laboratory for historians. But the future of the country will be decided by economic matters, by water supply, power, health, job creation, and growth. There are no votes in pursuing Botha or De Klerk, and the government is still sensitive to white and Afrikaner concerns."