21,000 victims give evidence - but have they got justice?

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IT COULD never have been a Nuremberg. To sustain the moral righteousness of a war-crimes tribunal requires a victor and vanquished. But South Africa, like Northern Ireland, admits of no such clarity.

A Truth and Reconciliation Commission seemed a masterly solution to a situation where - after the historic all-race elections in 1994 brought apartheid to an end - the demands of justice had to be balanced against the need to avoid provoking a violent backlash from one section of the still-divided community. But four years on, has it been a success?

It was not a new idea. Truth commissions were established throughout the past decade in Chile, El Salvador and other Latin America countries where human-rights violations had been endemic under right-wing or military dictatorships. They were empowered to grant amnesty to criminals who made a full confession to crimes which they could prove were politically motivated. No remorse was necessary.

Inevitably this set up a tension with the requirements of justice and the needs of retribution. Critics have seen the South African commission as a soft option. The language of reconciliation has seemed other-worldly and idealistic, an impression reinforced by the fact that its chairman was Archbishop Desmond Tutu, whose manner has been at times a little too irenic, especially in the face of the brazen denials of Winnie Mandela.

Certainly many of the families of the thousands who suffered grievously under apartheid felt they were being cheated of justice. Some, like the family of Steve Biko, went so far as to oppose the applications for amnesty by their relatives' killers and torturers.

And it is true that in a number of the high-profile cases, such as those of Winnie Mandela and PW Botha, the commission seemed impotent.

Yet of the 7,000 applications for amnesty only 125 have so far been granted. The rest were unable to convince the commission that they were telling the whole truth. Court cases will follow in many instances.

There was more to all this than merely asking the families of victims to forego all individual satisfaction as a sacrifice for the common good. Apartheid was a structural injustice. Millions were cruelly exploited, robbed of their land, forcibly removed into abject housing and subjected to gross discrimination in education. Some structural response was necessary.

Since 1996 the commission has heard or read reports from 21,000 victims of abuse during white minority rule. It has allowed ordinary people to describe in public their suffering and humiliation at the hands of the state. Complicity in the government terror has been revealed as rising to the highest levels. Families have at last learnt the truth about what happened to loved ones, allowing them to pass into a different stage in their mourning and grief.

Stories of suffering have been told and acknowledged. The pain is no longer private. Progress is now a possibility.