South Africa's Test

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission wasn't conceived to bring quick healing to that racially torn society - rather, to allow long-term mending. And now that its final, 3,500-page report is public, an end to the country's tensions may for the moment seem farther away, not closer.

Protests have come from all quarters. Before the report was even published, former president Frederik W. de Klerk - a key player in ending the old system - sued to block sections that allege his complicity in covering up acts of governmental violence in the 1980s. The commission reluctantly agreed to withhold the sections, pending a court decision in March.

Another legal challenge came from the African National Congress, President Nelson Mandela's now-ruling party. The ANC objected to inclusion of material about its past human-rights abuses. That challenge failed, and some 70 pages indict the ANC's use of such indefensible means as torture and bombings - no matter how desirable the end of freeing black South Africans from the yoke of apartheid.

But that racist system itself, and those who tried to perpetuate it, dominates the report. Through 31 months of hearings and investigations, including material from more than 21,000 people who suffered from political violence, the central villain in this drama has never been in doubt.

That fact lies behind the contention of some - particularly in the Afrikaner community - that the fact-finding process was biased from the start. But that's an argument contrary to history. Apartheid was the context within which everything else in South Africa happened for most of the last half century. The beatings, the massacres, the black-on-black violence, the acts of terrorism - all can be laid at the door of apartheid.

And today's central question is not whether figures ranging from former president P.W. Botha, an apartheid stalwart, to Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who stands accused of mixing her anti-apartheid activism with torture and murder, are formally brought to justice. It's whether this encyclopedic airing of the wrongs of the past will help smooth the way to a society where all races live in harmony.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission sprang from a moral truism: that a sin is really conquered only when squarely faced up to and forsaken. Then moral rebuilding, including forgiveness, can begin. That process is more easily undertaken by an individual than a society. Yet society is made up of individuals. If even a sizable minority of South Africans take the work of reconciliation seriously, its value is inestimable.

South Africa's democratic experiment rightly rivets the world's attention. There are huge tests ahead - such as vastly expanding basic services and economic opportunity for the black majority. Honestly revisiting the past was another crucial test. The commission's difficult work may at times have been flawed in execution. But it was not flawed in conception.

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