S. Africa's Truth Report: Healing or Hounding?

Both white and black leaders were accused by a commission yesterday. Will prosecutors act?

Have 30 months of excruciating national soul-searching by South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission closed the book on decades of torture, murder, and other crimes inspired by apartheid?

Or will the TRC's findings end up encouraging more "scratching at the wounds," as put by human rights lawyer Vinodh Jaichand?

"Accept this report as an indispensable way to healing," said TRC chair Desmond Tutu as he presented it to President Nelson Mandela yesterday. "Let the waters of healing flow...."

Yet Mr. Mandela warned that the report, which details human rights abuses by both the pro- and anti-apartheid forces between 1960 and 1994, "is bound to reawaken many of the difficult and troubling emotions."

A big question is whether the TRC dredged up enough solid evidence to force prosecution of apartheid-era criminals by the country's somewhat-unwilling attorneys general.

The TRC found skeletons in the closets of both the National Party, which codified racism in apartheid laws backed by state terrorism, and the African National Congress (ANC) whose guerrillas and township operatives also committed atrocities. Both sides tried to block publication of the TRC report.

"The opposition of those two parties to the TRC report is an indication that it is probably very balanced," said Mr. Jaichand, director of Lawyers for Human Rights.

There's a black patch on half a page where findings against the country's last apartheid president, F.W. de Klerk, have been censored - temporarily, according to the commission - to stave off Mr. de Klerk's request for a court injunction to stop publication. In March the TRC will seek court clearance to publish those findings.

TRC deputy chair Alex Boraine said it was easy to delete the few paragraphs about De Klerk, "but the material on the ANC runs through at least three of the volumes."

Following a dawn court hearing in Cape Town Thursday, the ANC was refused an injunction against publication. Earlier, TRC chair Tutu fumed against the ANC application, saying that "I have always struggled against tyranny...and abuse of power."

Ironically, said former TRC investigator Zenzile Khoisan, the ANC's court action has focused attention on crimes committed by those who fought apartheid, as opposed to those who promoted apartheid.

The TRC said that "those with the most power to abuse must carry the heaviest responsibility."

The TRC did not find the smoking gun with which to pin murder on apartheid government leaders. It holds senior apartheid police officials and the former ministers of police, and law and order responsible for the torture of political detainees. But it deemed that the apartheid Cabinet in general was only indirectly responsible for such torture and death.

It notes that the Cabinet "used language in its meetings and recommendations that was highly ambiguous," thus shielding itself from responsibility for government-funded death squads.

As for former President P.W. Botha, the commission ruled that he had fostered a political climate encouraging wide-scale human rights abuse "and as such is accountable for such violations." More damning is the charge that Mr. Botha ordered the bombing of the South African Council of Churches, for which he might be prosecuted.

The truth commission found the ANC guilty mainly of crimes of omission. The ANC failed to stop torture and murder in its Angola guerrilla camps and by township self-defense units. The TRC holds the ANC responsible for the excesses of President Mandela's ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, charged with complicity in several cases of torture, murder, and coverup.

One of the most tragic findings is that more than half the 9,043 killings reported to the TRC occurred between 1990 and 1994, after Mandela had been released from prison and the ANC had been unbanned. Most of it was black-on-black violence, some of it fomented covertly, to an uncertain degree, by the apartheid government.

Members of the Zulu-nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party told the TRC they were trained and armed by the apartheid government to attack the ANC.

Veteran anti-apartheid campaigner Helen Suzman said she's unsure whether the TRC succeeded in promoting reconciliation: "At least we know more than we used to know."

The TRC still has to finish the messy job of deciding who gets amnesty in return for a full description of crimes they can prove were committed for political reasons. Of 7,060 amnesty applications, the TRC has refused 4,570 and granted just 125. The rest will be decided by March 1999, when a sixth volume of the TRC report will be published.

The TRC recommends that "prosecution should be considered" for those who are refused amnesty or did not apply, like Botha, Ms. Madikizela-Mandela, and various members of the South African Police Service.

The TRC has pledged to turn over evidence to the provincial attorneys general. Unfortunately, these are all apartheid relics. Their jobs are protected under the deal through which the apartheid government gave up power.

"Many of them appear not to have spent much time investigating apartheid crime," said David Unterhalter of the Center for Applied Legal Studies.

"We will have to agitate for prosecution," said Peter Jones, who was arrested and tortured in 1977 along with Steve Biko, his colleague in the Black Consciousness Movement. Mr. Biko died in custody of severe brain injuries inflicted by Eastern Cape police.

Last year, Eastern Cape Attorney General Les Roberts said he would not prosecute police involved in Biko's death if they failed to get amnesty from the TRC.

Mr. Jones hopes Bulelani Ngcuka, recently appointed by the ANC as the country's new "super-prosecutor," will spearhead such prosecutions.

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to S. Africa's Truth Report: Healing or Hounding?
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today