South Africa: wrestling with forgiveness

With Boy Scout politeness, South Africa's most notorious assassin for the apartheid regime holds a nation transfixed as he details 107 cases of murder, torture, and fraud.

For three weeks now, Eugene de Kock - a.k.a. Prime Evil - has given tell-all testimony of his foul deeds. Already convicted of multiple murders, he can win amnesty - and a ticket out of prison - if he persuades the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) that his crimes were politically motivated and that he is telling the truth.

Should Prime Evil be forgiven? Can there be justice without retribution? What about the victim's rights?

South Africans are heatedly debating these questions as the amnesty committee of the Truth Commission works through a remaining 400 pleas for absolution - its final and most controversial task.

Many South Africans share the disgust that Mathetha Tsedu, deputy editor of the Johannesburg Star, expresses with the amnesty process: "It stinks to high heaven," he says, "to imagine that after confessing, these people who committed the most horrendous crimes will then be patted on the shoulder by the TRC."

Mr. De Kock's exhaustive testimony and expressions of remorse are widely seen as a last-ditch bid to reduce the record 262-year sentence he is currently serving in a windowless cell of the country's most high-security prison. He first denied any wrong-doing at his criminal trial, but was sentenced in 1996 after former comrades testified against him.

In a written application more than 1,000 pages long, the ex-police colonel now details how he killed several freedom fighters, led the 1982 bombing of the African National Congress building in London, and watched his men commit torture.

More than 7,000 other people have asked for amnesty, but the truth commission is quick to point out that, as of May, it had granted pardons to only 349 applicants. It denied impunity to the policemen who beat activist Steve Biko prior to his 1977 death in detention.

Torturers, killers go free

But many other decisions have rubbed nerves raw. Earlier this year, police captain Jeffrey Benzien - who horrified the world with his courtroom demonstration of the "wet bag" torture method he had favored - was pardoned for several murders. The commission also granted amnesty to the youths who attacked and killed American Fulbright scholar Amy Biehl in 1993. And an ANC freedom fighter who killed 21 people was beaming when he walked free from his prison cell last week.

These offenders can now never be prosecuted in criminal court or sued for damages by their victims. Mr. Tsedu fumes: "The TRC is a denial of justice. Without justice, how can the victims feel healed?"

But proponents of the process point out that, without amnesty provisions, South Africa may never have enjoyed its "miracle" transition to democracy in 1994. The former National Party government, backed by the police and the defense force, refused to hand over power unless it had been assured of amnesty for acts committed during the apartheid conflict.

Prosecutions, like the Nuremberg trials that followed World War II, may be possible when conflict ends through force of arms. But in South Africa the transition from authoritarian rule to democracy occurred through a negotiated settlement. The new government remained reliant on the very institutions and personnel that had committed human rights violations - military, police, even sitting politicians.

"There was no victor and vanquished," Alex Boraine, vice-chair of the truth commission, has argued. He adds that forgiveness is preferable to trials that would not only have been costly in financial terms but caused further divisions in society.

"Is it not a better alternative to deal with the past through the means of a commission which has a limited life ... and move forward into the future?"

The new government restored moral balance to the amnesty agreement by combining the process of forgiving perpetrators with truth hearings that would focus on the victims. The fusion of these two approaches is what makes South Africa's truth commission unique in the world.

Chile, for example, also established a commission to investigate the tortures and "disappearances" that had occurred under the rule of Gen. Augusto Pinochet. But, because of the continued strength of the military, the new government was unable to prosecute human rights abusers - a failure that amounted to a "blanket" amnesty.

Rwanda, by comparison, opted to imprison more than 80,000 people suspected of playing a role in the 1994 massacres and attempted wide-scale prosecutions - both at the International Tribunal for Rwanda in Geneva and in ill-equipped courts at home. This solution may have had some success, but more human rights abuses were committed because the court system could not deal with so many accused in a timely manner.

At the outset, South Africa's truth commission focused on atrocities by holding cross-country hearings in which victim after victim publicly rose to tell their stories.

"Abuses were exposed on both sides," says Deborah Posel, a professor who helped organize a recent international conference at Johannesburg's University of Witswatersrand to assess the truth commission's impact. "Whites can no longer sanitize apartheid and blacks cannot romanticize the struggle against it."

But, after a hefty five-volume report on the commission's findings was released with fanfare last October, Johannesburg researcher Carin Williams discovered that many apartheid victims have been left feeling cheated. Close to 22,000 people registered with the commission as victims of human rights abuses - but only 2,500 people were granted an opportunity to give oral evidence.

Newsworthy subjects

"The TRC selected subjects that could capture the national interest, that were most eloquent and newsworthy," she said in her presentation at the recent conference. "Stories of known, prominent figures in the struggle were portrayed as the stories of the voiceless public." In reality, for the larger majority, "testifying" amounted to little more than filling out a form.

Some victims say the only real form of justice available to them now is financial compensation. Hlengiwe Mkize, chairwoman of the commission's reparations committee, says some 5,000 survivors have been paid "urgent interim reparations" of between US $300 and $800. But the government has yet to debate the TRC's recommendation to make larger payments to all 22,000 victims.

Many survivors feel abandoned.

"The TRC forced people to relive their pain," says Ms. Mkize. "And the majority of people who came through the TRC process are real victims who are left in abject poverty. We can not just say thank you, good bye. We must help."

Justice, she says, may be possible without formal prosecutions - but not without restitution.

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