Nine years ago, police commander Brian Mitchell gave the order which led to the massacre of 11 innocent black men, women and children. Today, amazingly, he is a free man - granted amnesty by South Africa's controversial Truth and Reconciliation Commission
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"The dirt track always leads to the black man's home; Tarmac to the white man's," smiles Fasties Mbongwe as he turns off the main road and clouds of choking, red dust suddenly billow out behind the car. Ahead, shimmering in brilliant sunshine, Trust Feed, a small rural black community, 25km from Pietermaritzburg, strings out against lush, rolling KwaZulu- Natal hills.

So much of South Africa's political violence has taken place in breathtakingly beautiful spots. It was here on 3 December 1988 that 31-year-old Lieutenant Brian Mitchell, police commander at New Hanover, the next white town on the Tarmac road, ordered a massacre in which 11 people died.

Their killers would eventually testify that Mitchell pointed out No 83 Trust Feed and ordered them to "kill the Communists". The "Commies" turned out to be mourners keeping candlelit vigil, in Zulu tradition, over the body of Sdedewu Sithole, an elderly relative.

A police cover-up was immediately launched, because even by the standards of the time it was such an appallingly savage act that the gruesome facts could not be fed all at once to the public. A police statement the morning after stated that six women and three men had been murdered, adding, disingenuously, that a "black man and a black woman under 18" had also been killed. The latter two victims were Nkonyeni Shangase and his sister Muzi, aged nine and four.

Fasties Mbongwe, a friend of those who died, points to a patch of overgrown scrubland in the middle of the settlement. It has been a decade now. The black liberation struggle has been won and a new South Africa born. But even on this sun-filled day the past still casts its shadow. There, amidst the spikey grass, are 11 small plastic wreaths recently laid by the community on No 83's now flattened plot.

Mbongwe explains there were only two survivors: a baby, miraculously spared, and a blood-drenched four-year-old boy, who by playing dead lived to describe how two men coolly walked through the house - one illuminating the mourners with a torch while the other executed them with a shotgun at point-blank range. Everyone in Trust Feed heard the shots rattle against the darkness that night but no one dared investigate until daybreak.

The Trust Feed massacre was dismissed by the authorities as "black-on-black" violence - another tussle in the conflict between the banned African National Congress (through its proxy the United Democratic Front - UDF) and Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party (IFP) which provided a bloody subplot in South Africa's liberation story.

Three years later, however, as the transition to black majority rule began, Mitchell, by then promoted to captain, was arrested for the murders. The trial judge ruled that black, IFP-supporting special constables carried out the massacre but that Mitchell gave the orders and even fired the first two shots. The trial confirmed claims that the police and special security forces were deliberately orchestrating violence between the IFP and ANC in a last, desperate attempt to preserve white minority rule.

Mitchell, portayed in court as a quiet family man fond of woodwork and DIY, was sentenced to death - 11 times. But the ANC's coming to power led to the abolition of the death sentence and after spending two years on death row, Mitchell's sentence was commuted to life. Then, in December last year, he was freed after becoming the first policeman to be granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

The independent Commission, which held its first public hearings in April last year, was established to expose the truth about apartheid, one of the most immoral, inhumane and criminal political systems of modern times, as a crucial first step on the road to healing a bitterly divided nation. It was the brainchild of the ANC's Thabo Mbeki, now the country's deputy president, and Kader Asmal, now a government minister. The establishment of the Commission was a foundation for the 1994 settlement between the ANC and the then ruling National Party, which led to South Africa's miraculous negotiated transition of power.

The Commission, which employs a thousand people and has a budget of 125 million rands (around pounds 18m), should have finished work last month but its life has been extended to December and, even then, it may need more time. Its task is monumental; its approach to dealing with the past a high-risk experiment being watched by a world in which large-scale gross human-rights violations are all too common, and mechanisms for dealing with them pitifully inadequate.

So far 10,000 people have claimed to be victims, or related to victims, of gross human-rights violations. They represent the wider suffering of an entire population terrorised and repressed under apartheid. Some whites, of course, fought apartheid, just as black askaris spied for the state. But the vast majority of victims were black. At public hearings all over the country thousands have told their stories in an unrelenting flood of human pain and despair. Mothers have recounted witnessing the execution of entire families and widows have begged for the remains of murdered husbands for burial, and even for the return of amputated fingers kept as "souvenirs" in police interrogation rooms.

To even the deafest and the blindest of South African whites it is surely now clear that the security forces - employing more than their fair share of sadists - poisoned, tortured, murdered, burned and dismembered those whose fight for democracy made them enemies of the state.

But the TRC has hardly begun the most hazardous part of its work. Now that the once-voiceless victims have had their say, the Commission is concentrating on the victimisers. Its most controversial power - to grant amnesty to perpetrators - is now being fully unleashed. Provided perpetrators, including mass murderers, fully disclose all information about their crimes - aiding the country's search for truth - and can prove their actions were politically motivated, they will be freed and given indemnity from future criminal and civil action.

The TRC has already dealt with a thousand amnesty applications - purposely focusing first on people already serving prison sentences. Most were black and had been jailed by the previous government for relatively trivial crimes. Under the agreement reached by the ANC and the NP, crimes committed either in the name of the liberation movement or the government are to be treated the same. Here, at least, the ANC forfeited the moral high ground and some of its most prominent figures have applied for amnesty.

It is the 6,000 remaining applications which may prove most divisive. For among them are pleas from the perpetrators of some of the most notorious atrocities - many of whom are former policemen guilty of mass murder. At the end of the victims' stories, TRC chairman Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who often wept at hearings, said, the "depth of depravity takes your breath away". But so too, he insisted, did people's capacity to forgive. Being not just a political deal but a quasi-religious exercise, the TRC relies on large helpings of Christian forgiveness. But it remains to be seen whether the generosity of spirit demonstrated by blacks will hold up when the killers of some of the liberation movement's most celebrated leaders walk free.

The public has already been treated to a sickening display of the methods used by a torturer - one which sorely stretched the notion that perpetrators can be victims of the system too. Tomorrow the men convicted of killing liberation hero Chris Hani, whose assassination in 1993 almost derailed the peace process, go on trial. Cheryl Carolus, ANC deputy president, who opposes the application by Hani's killers, argues the credibility of the TRC rests on how it handles this case.

Already some victims' families have condemned the TRC as a "perpetrator's paradise". If public anger rises in the next few months the Commission will find itself under seige over other gnawing concerns about South Africa's method of dealing with its past, and in particular complaints that individual justice is being sacrificed for political expediency.

BRIAN MITCHELL, now 40, is still one of the few policemen to have won amnesty. He was dealt with early on because, unlike other policemen, he had actually been jailed for his crimes, and so benefited when the TRC decided to deal with prisoners first.

But his hearing also came early in order to persuade other police perpetrators to come clean. Mitchell's claim to have "found God" during his incarceration can also not have done him any harm. Whatever the reasons, his early release has provided a litmus test of public opinion; and given some indication of the likely limits of forgiveness and reconciliation.

It is six months since Mitchell walked out of prison, carrying Prettyboy, the budgie who kept him sane on death row. His 34-year-old wife Karen, the mother of his three children, divorced him while he was inside but, none the less, was there to meet him at the gates. "He could not believe it," she remembers. "He just wanted to touch the trees and the grass."

His release stunned Trust Feed. A few months ago the Commission oversaw a high-profile reconciliation between Mitchell and the community. In full media glare, more than 500 local people turned out. TRC officials tried to persuade the angry crowd, still pressing Mitchell to implicate others in the massacre, that the time had come to bury the past. Mitchell repeated the apologies he made at his tearful amnesty hearing and asked for a chance to make amends.

Archbishop Tutu fondly recounts how Mitchell's reception was initially hostile but the community was waving to him when he left. If only reconciliation was that easy. Today, happy wavers are thin on the ground in Trus Feed.

The TRC has accepted Mitchell's "truth" and his implication of a senior officer, conveniently now deceased. The community remains unconvinced by his claims that inaccurate IFP intelligence led him to target the wrong house.

For those closest to the victims the tragedy weighs heaviest. In a mud house within sight of the 11 wreaths, Gogo (Granny) Thenjiwe Mdunge, frail and blind in one eye, says she cannot remember which year she was born. "But I will never forget Brian Mitchell," she says firmly, in Zulu. "Only when I die will I forget him."

Nkongeni and Muzi Shangase were Gogo's grandchildren. She also lost a son and a daughter in the attack. The wake was for her brother. In her dark, bare sitting-room, she sits on tattered fabric, sandwiched between two grandsons. S'thembiso, aged 13, barefoot and wearing pyjamas he grew out of long ago, was the four- year-old boy who survived the massacre. His parents died. S'Phamandla, aged 11, lost his mother Zethu who was Gogo's favourite child; the daughter she knows would have cushioned her old age.

As a few sickly chickens peck around for miserable scraps in the yard, Gogo asks how she can forgive a man who has condemned her to spend her final years in grinding poverty. Her insurance for her old age disappeared with her children; and now she must raise four orphaned grandchildren on a monthly pension of 470 rands (less than pounds 70).

Brian Mitchell's explanations have made no impact on Gogo. "I would like to ask Brian Mitchell why he did it?" she still says, her shoulders suddenly slouching and her tired, old eyes drifting out of focus. "Why he took my children away?" Anyway what kind of man, she asks, orders such carnage?

Fasties Mbongwe, a former UDF member, is similarly sceptical about Mitchell's truth. He argues it was a random act. The aim was to destablise the area, weakening the ANC. Did it really matter to Mitchell which kaffirs died? The massacre was after all merely the culmination of Mitchell's reign of terror since becoming the local police commander.

The Mitchell that Mbongwe remembers bears no resemblance to the repentant born-again Christian presented to the TRC. The former policeman claims he was devastated by the killings, but the morning after the atrocity and the razing of several Trust Feed homes a swaggering Mitchell visited Mbongwe, interned two weeks earlier for being a member of the UDF, in his cell. After a fortnight in solitary confinement Mbongwe was at breaking point and says he could already "hear the bed sing".

"I did not know anything about the murders but Brian was like a tiger ready to spring. He said he had just fucked his wife and when did I think I would be able to fuck mine. Then he said someone had burned my shop down overnight. He never mentioned the massacre. I'm sure Brian is sorry. I'm just not sure who for."

Remorse is not a pre-requisite for amnesty. And anyway Gogo doubts that the "monster" feels. But if Mitchell had kept his promise to build her a house and educate her grandchildren it might have eased her pain.

"But," she snorts, "where is the house and the money? I felt like flying when Brian Mitchell was sentenced to death but the amnesty has made me bitter. He has his children and I will never see mine again."

AT A MODEST flat in Pietermaritzburg, Karen Mitchell smiles thinly at the assumption that her former husband is back in the bosom of his family.

Her home is Afrikaner kitsch - all china cutesies, patchwork quilts and crocheted tissue-box covers. But any innocence she had is gone. You can almost taste her despair. "No one has taken the trouble to find out what is happening to his family," she says. It has been impossible to find out from Mitchell, who is lying low. "I'm just trying to put my life back together," he had explained to me earlier on the telephone. "It's tough and I don't want to say any more."

The Mitchells got re-engaged at Christmas, days after Brian's release. But it was a short-lived attempt to turn back the clock. "By the time Brian came out not only had we changed but so had the whole of South Africa," sighs Karen Mitchell. Their third child, born after Brian's arrest, hardly knew him. Their eldest daughter, now 14, is terrified that pupils at her racially-mixed school will find out who her father is. Mitchell's eldest daughter says he has "ruined her life".

It has been two months since Karen Mitchell last saw her former husband, although they speak on the telephone. She is not blind to Mitchell's faults, revealing he had a lengthy affair before being arrested. But she feels sorry for him.

On the day he was praised for returning to Trust Feed, she reveals he was also sacked from his first job since leaving prison. A former police colleague who won a contract with a soft-drinks company had given Mitchell a job. But the contract was withdrawn when the black workforce found out and threatened to strike.

"Brian is very hurt and angry," says Karen Mitchell. It's an ironic situation; the victimiser now victimised. But the way Karen Mitchell sees it victimisation began years ago when Mitchell became a "scapegoat" for the system.

"Brian gave 150 per cent to the job and they hung him out to dry," she says. "When he was released he cut up his police uniform." She agrees her husband has responsibility for Trust Feed but traces his orders all the way to P W Botha, former South African President. Botha has been implicated in other crimes at TRC hearings and it is hard not to conclude that politics has influenced the TRC's decision not to subpoena him. Force an ailing, elderly party leader to testify and the whole of Afrikanerdom might revolt. Botha meanwhile thumbs his nose at the Commission, dismissing it as a witchhunt against Afrikaners.

Apartheid's foot soldiers therefore are taking the rap while the architects and custodians of the system wash their hands of responsibility. When F W de Klerk, the current NP leader, responsible for releasing Nelson Mandela from jail, made his party's first submission to the TRC, Archbishop Tutu wept again. This time it was from disappointment. De Klerk said the NP took responsibility for creating the conditions which allowed human-rights abuses to take place but not for the countless murders carried out by state-security forces. The NP, he insisted, never sanctioned them and knew nothing of the hit squads roaming the country.

The NP is increasingly alienated from the Commission. It has threatened to take the TRC to court and claims the Commission is not being even-handed in its approach. The NP's insistence that it was ignorant of security- force activities is described as "cowardly and ludicrous" by the ANC. The NP position rather abandons Mitchell and thousands like him who considered themselves soldiers in a civil war.

It is becoming an over-used defence but Karen Mitchell now believes her former husband was brutalised by the system. Mitchell, who joined the police at the age of 16, was always a heavy drinker. "They all drank heavy," she says. "Sometimes it was a miracle he got home."

IN THE Seventies and Eighties, South Africa was ablaze as black children confronted police on the streets and the edifices of apartheid crumbled. But when Mitchell came home from a hard, tear-gas-filled day in the townships politics was apparently a taboo subject. "He never brought his work home," says Karen Mitchell. "His first posting, at 18, was Soweto during the 1976 riots but it was only when he was interviewed by a psychologist for his plea in mitigation that he talked about his terror."

The drinking came in bouts. After the Trust Feed massacre Mitchell again fell off the wagon. "He just kept repeating that he didn't shoot anyone and saying I should have seen their faces. He was there the morning after and it was the children who upset him most."

If Mitchell's life is in tatters, his former wife is just beginning to put hers back together. She attempted suicide three times after Mitchell was arrested. She took to booze and tranquillisers and her children had to move in with their grandparents. They only recently returned to live with her.

Trust Feed's demands obviously infuriate her. "Fasties Mbongwe said Brian must sell his police medals and give the community the money. Brian agreed but I was angry. The medals are now in my safe at work. The medals were for combating terrorism. I said to Brian you have to leave something to your son. There are also demands that he educate this and that one's child and he does not even have the money to educate his own."

Gogo is rather torn by Brian Mitchell's predicament. No job means no money and no keeping of the promises. But his misfortune still convulses her, bending double her old body, thin and sinewy from a life of hard times. "I hear he had a job for two days but the boss chased him," she says, releasing a surprisingly raucous laugh.

IN THE NEXT few months thousands of victims' families must decide whether to oppose amnesty applications. With reconciliation a basic aim, the Commission, as yet, can take little comfort from Trust Feed.

If it is to succeed, it will have to rely instead on women like Elizabeth Nothible Hashe, a grey-haired 62-year-old Xhosa, whose husband Sipho, leader of the Port Elizabeth Black Civic Organisation (PEBCO), and two colleagues - Champion Galela and Qaqawuli Godolozi - were murdered by the security forces in 1985.

Interviewing Mrs Hashe is a humbling experience. She dedicated her life to black emancipation at enormous personal loss. Liberation has yet to bring material rewards and she frets about her five grown-up children, part of the generation which turned schools into battlegrounds and now finds itself uneducated and unemployed. But somehow idealism endures.

A fading liberation poster still has pride of place in the home she once shared with Sipho in the Port Elizabeth township of Kwazakhele. In it Oliver Tambo, the late ANC president, argues that "in a beleaguered South Africa" a woman's place can no longer be in the kitchen but at "the battlefront of the struggle".

"My husband disappeared one evening after he received a call to go to the airport to meet a British diplomat," says Mrs Hashe. That night police patrols passed the Hashes' home with worrying frequency. "I walked from my house to the road and from the road to my house all night long," she says, remembering how she strained her eyes down the bumpy dirt track for the lights of Sipho's van.

The police later bombed and tear-gassed her home. At first they taunted her that they had her husband's body. Later they denied all knowledge of his whereabouts. For 11 years Mrs Hashe and her neighbour Nomali Rita Galela travelled the country looking for their husbands. There were endless sightings. All came to nothing.

Mrs Hashe was one of the first to give evidence to the TRC. Five former security policemen - including a brigadier - have since come forward to ask for amnesty for 40 murders including those of Hashe and his friends - known as the PEBCO Three - and Steve Biko, the father of black consciousness in South Africa, who was battered to death in police custody in 1977.

The security policemen have confessed they kidnapped the PEBCO Three, tortured and killed them. They cut up their bodies and threw them in the Great Fish River, the old 19th-century front line between the Xhosas and advancing white settlers. The five have urged the National Party to admit it authorised their activities. Despite the horror, Mrs Hashe and Mrs Galela say knowledge has brought peace. They were disappointed that there were no remains to bury but have held a memorial service on the banks of the river.

The women will not oppose the amnesty application of the five men, led by Brigadier Jack Cronje, a former head of the notorious Vlakplaas ("farm on the plains") special police unit. Vlakplaas, set in rural splendour near Pretoria, began a secret "counter-terrorism" unit but by the mid- Eighties its operatives had given up arresting suspects. Instead they were dispatched all over South Africa to murder activists - and while the bodies of their victims burned many have confessed that they whiled away the hours drinking beer and barbecuing steaks.

Mrs Hashe knows all this but her Christian faith tells her that deep down such men have consciences. " I used to say I would never forgive those who murdered my husband but I will if they tell the truth. I know my husband wanted lasting peace for South Africa and if he is watching I want him to rest well."

Steve Biko's widow Ntsiki, however, will oppose the application by her husband's killers. Last year she lost a bid to have the Constitutional Court declare the TRC's amnesty powers unconstitutional. She joined forces with Churchill Mxenge, whose brother Griffiths, an ANC lawyer, was assassinated in 1981 when he stopped to help a man whose car appeared to have broken down. Mxenge was stabbed 40 times and his throat slit.

Churchill Mxenge will contest the amnesty application of Dirk Coetzee, another former Vlakplaas commander who admitted, and has been convicted of, murdering his brother. Coetzee made headlines in 1989 when he blew the whistle on government-backed hit squads. He fled to London after defecting to the ANC. The ANC looked after him and even employed him when he returned to South Africa.

Mxenge is still an ANC member but feels betrayed. "My brother in particular would have felt betrayed that the movement sacrificed him for information. They stabbed and stabbed my brother. It was murder, never politics."

THOSE WHO COMPLAIN the TRC robbed them of their right to criminal and civil court action argue that the Commission is conducting "flimsy" investigations and that for every highly publicised breakthrough many more cases remain unsolved. The truth, they say, is being "managed" and perpetrators are getting off scot-free.

But the senior judge Richard Goldstone, a prominent white South African and recent chief prosecutor in the trial of alleged perpetrators of human- rights abuses in Bosnia, says critics of the TRC must judge it for what it is - a political compromise. It was part of a deal to end a conflict in which there was no outright military victor and therefore no possibility of Nuremberg-style trials.

"In all countries where there have been huge violations of human rights there are thousands of perpetrators," he says. "What country has the resources to put them all on trial? You need a mechanism to deal with this sort of past." He points out that it took a year alone to try Dusan Tadic, a Bosnian Serb, for murder and crimes against humanity.

Judge Goldstone argues that the value of an officially recognised "truth" cannot be underestimated. It brings immense relief to victims and guards against historical revision. The TRC will eventually produce a definitive report on the apartheid years - a task no court could have achieved.

But he appreciates the widespread frustration with the Pontius Pilate antics of politicians. The TRC has failed so far to nail senior National Party politicians. Only Adriaan Vlok, former minister for law and order, has applied for amnesty after being implicated in the bombing of church headquarters and cinemas which tried to show Cry Freedom, the movie about Steve Biko. Four former police commissioners are applying for amnesty but the armed forces have proved harder to crack because there have been orders from the top not to break ranks.

The TRC has failed to trace responsibility back to the generals and the politicians but so too have the courts. Judge Goldstone says 'twas ever thus : those who carry out the orders, not those who gave them, generally carry the can.

Conscience-inspired confession might have warmed the heart but many amnesty- seekers have played a cynical waiting game - only filing an application when they were implicated in TRC hearings, or when criminal proceedings against them looked imminent.

Rev Mncebisi Xundu, TRC member and the minister who presided over the funeral of Steve Biko, admits it is those who have sacrificed so much already who must sacrifice again for the sake of reconciliation. But a little more white appreciation might help. Why, he asks, have whites, with some notable exceptions, been less willing to forgive atrocities against them? It is as well, he says, that the vast majority of victims were black.

With the TRC officially only six months from winding up, no one at the top accepts responsibility for the years of repression. The Commission meanwhile labours to instil a sense of collective responsibility, lest ordinary South Africans feel no connection with those who tortured in their name. It is an uphill task. Although many whites have been shocked by the TRC hearings, many seem in denial. These days hardly anyone can recall voting for the party that enforced a system which should shame the nation. ! Since the loss of her family, Thenjiwe 'Gogo' Mdunge (above) has been condemned to a life of poverty; Karen Mitchell (below) has tried to end her life three times