South Africa plays truth or dare

In Soweto, blacks are exorcising the demons of apartheid in front of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But as they give evidence, the spectre of Dirk Coetzee, a former security policeman, threatens the fragile healing process.
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In the shadow of the huge wooden crucifix that dominates Soweto's Regina Mundi church, Ellen Khuzwayo, an elderly black activist, was asked how much she could forgive for the sake of the new South Africa.

MaKhuzwayo, as the former teacher is known in the sprawling shanty township, closed her eyes and paused before answering the panel from the controversial Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In the brief period of silence, the largely black 200-strong audience, filling the front pews, strained to hear.

"Sometimes I can forgive the National Party for what they did to us as adults, but I can never forgive what they did to our children," she said, her voice rising in anger.

"They never saw our children as children because the colour of their skin was different from their own ... They turned our children into animals and I feel I will go to my grave with this pain in my heart."

For the past three months the commission, under the slogan "Healing our land", has travelled all over South Africa hearing the testimony of the victims of apartheid: a seemingly endless stream of horrific stories, most often from the families of those murdered by security force hit squads and accounts from victims who suffered unbelievable brutality and torture at the hands of the police. The aim is to lay bare the evils of the past and in so doing, make possible a better future.

This week the commission rolled into Soweto for a special hearing on the historic 1976 student uprising, which sparked the violent countrywide confrontation between black children in school uniform and the mighty, military-backed apartheid state.

MaKhuzwayo, now an MP in the ANC-led government, remembered 16 June 1976 as the day the security forces opened fire on a peaceful demonstration by children, and Soweto "caught fire". The children were protesting against "Bantu" education, an inferior curriculum introduced years before by the government "to ensure blacks remained slaves", and enforced lessons in Afrikaans.

In the months and years that followed, she said, a generation of children had been brutalised and lost. Today many were murderers and criminals. The gathering broke into loud applause as she concluded that the annihilation of black children's potential was something she could never forgive.

Antoinette Sithole, 37, another witness, had equally terrible memories. On 16 June her brother, Hector Peterson, was killed by a police bullet. He was just 12 when the children of Soweto became target practice for the forces of the state. Still at primary school he had followed the high school march out of curiosity, although Antoinette, then 17, had advised him to go home.

At the back of the Regina Mundi church, Hector's murder and Antoinette's anguish are captured forever on film. In the most famous photograph of the apartheid era, a weeping teenage boy carries Hector's limp body while Antoinette runs, screaming, alongside. As Sam Nzima, the man who took the picture, told the commission, there could be no doubt: the children received no warning of what was to come and the police "shot to kill".

It is one of the miracles of South Africa that so many who have suffered show so little bitterness. "At first I was very, very angry," Ms Sithole told the commission quietly. "But later I realised that Hector did not die in vain." She linked his sacrifice in the 1970s directly to the creation of the new South Africa and said she was "happy" that her country was changing.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was part of the deal which gave birth to South Africa's Government for National Unity in 1994. It was created to bring together a bitterly divided country and create the foundations for the building of a new nation.

The commission is grounded in the notion that white racists were not the only perpetrators of the injustice and violence endemic during the apartheid years: the ANC, for example, has accusations of violence against its own members to answer. The commission is also founded on the constitutionally enshrined principle of amnesty for those on both sides of the apartheid divide.

It has three constituent parts: public hearings for victims of violence; the same for perpetrators, at which they may confess voluntarily in the hope of amnesty; and a reparations body to consider compensation for those who suffered. Not surprisingly, there are far more victims than perpetrators coming forward: the only incentive for the latter is that if they do not present themselves voluntarily, and are then implicated in a victim's testimony, they can be prosecuted for their crimes.

In Soweto, as with every other hearing, there was no shortage of brutal acts to forgive. Ameila Molapo, paralysed by a police bullet when she was 11, gave testimony from her wheelchair. She only cried as she told how her mother died from shock the day she was injured. But as the litany of wrongs continued there were few whites at Regina Mundi to appreciate the victims' magnanimity.

"The trouble is that these hearings are seen by the majority of whites as blacks' business," said one of the few white visitors. "The average white does not accept any responsibility for the suffering of these people."

Three months into the hearings - and already seeking a six-month extension to cope with the demand from victims to give evidence - white indifference is just one of a raft of criticisms directed at the commission.

Walter Sisulu, 83, ANC veteran and Soweto resident, had a first-row seat when the township hearings opened on Monday. Like President Mandela, he advocates forgiveness and reconcilation and leads by example. Under apartheid he languished in jail for 25 years, most of that time as Mandela's cellmate. Without the commission, he says, South Africa might slip into a bitter political mire like that which has afflicted Northern Ireland.

But the commission is attacked from all sides. For many blacks, particularly those who lost family members, it is an exercise in political expediency, not justice. They want perpetrators to pay for the past, not indulge in a nationwide therapy session. Others complain that the ANC has been far too generous in accepting any responsibility for violence under apartheid. Its abuses, they argue, were hardly in the same league as the former government's.

Former president FW de Klerk has branded the commission a witchhunt, warning it may "tear out the stitches of wounds that are beginning to heal". And even some of the blacks willing to forgive and forget - amazingly, the majority - complain that the hearings are stirring up too many painful memories.

But while in Soweto they are lining up to give evidence about apartheid- era crimes, two court cases involving South Africa's most famous perpetrator of those crimes may yet fulfill all the wishful thinking of the commission's detractors and blow it out of the water.

As the painful Soweto hearings were taking place, foreign journalists were having lunch in Johannesburg with Dirk Coetzee, self-confessed murderer and former captain in the South African security police.

In 1989, Coetzee, an Afrikaner, committed the ultimate "betrayal", when he defected to the ANC and provided the first inside confirmation that state-backed hit squads, a so-called "Third Force", had operated in South Africa, murdering and torturing anti-apartheid activists and covertly fuelling violence between rival black political groups.

Coetzee fled the country to make his "Third Force" allegations in London, where he was hidden at a series of secret addresses by ANC members in exile. In South Africa the establishment investigated and dismissed his allegations - including his admission that he helped to plan the murder of civil rights lawyer Griffiths Mxenge. Mr Mxenge was stabbed 40 times and his throat was cut after he stopped to help a group of men who pretended their car had broken down.

In the post-apartheid era, Coetzee found his way home and back into the security services as an ANC appointee. But last week he was suspended from work when, seven years after his original confessions, he was finally charged with Mxenge's murder.

Interestingly, Tim McNally, the KwaZulu Natal Attorney-General who decided to prosecute him, is the same man who previously ruled out criminal charges against Coetzee. McNally claims now that he is acting on new evidence but several South African newspapers have suggested that political pressure has more bearing on his change of mind.

The charging of Coetzee has thrown the entire purpose of the commission into question, for it comes just as his application for amnesty is under consideration. Already, his case has dissuaded other security service torturers and murderers from coming forward for amnesty. "It has not been as easy as I thought it would be," Coetzee said this week. "My advice to other perpetrators is to wait and see what happens to Dirk Coetzee."

Coetzee's prosecution follows months of lobbying by the family of Griffiths Mxenge. The commission's position is threatened further by another challenge from the family in the Constitutional Court. Mr Mxenge's brother Churchill and the family of murdered black activist Steve Biko are asking the court to consider a submission that the commission is unconstitutional because its amnesty powers deny families the right to justice.

"There is a lot of talk about reconciliation," says Steve Biko's widow, Ntsiki. "Is it the families of the victims who are supposed to be reconciled with the perpetrators of these crimes, or is it the government which is supposed to be reconciled with the perpetrators?"

And Churchill Mxenge will feel cheated if Coetzee does not eventually stand trial. No one, he points out, asked the victims about the commission before it was set up: he believes its existence simply makes evident a desire for peace at all costs.

Over coffee and dessert in a northern suburb country club, Coetzee reassured journalists that in all the "atrocities" he was prepared to confess to he had never actually pulled the trigger (or presumably wielded the knife). Coetzee's apparent honesty is disarming. No, conscience did not spur him to come forward originally. Events were getting out of hand and there had been a real possibility that he was going to have to take the rap alone for the Mxenge murder. And no, he had never actually practised a particularly grisly form of torture himself. But then that was probably because he was never in a situation where he had to.

As befits a man from the shadowy world of espionage and covert operations, Coetzee, now on bail for murder, has plenty of conspiracy theories to offer about the belated charges. He believes that he is being charged now in order to prevent other perpetrators coming forward and laying bare the full extent of the previous regime's despicable behaviour. He insists that many of those who ran the old security system are still in place and pulling the strings.

Behind the jokes and the smiles he seems a beleaguered man. Last week he complained that he had been used "like a condom", first by the apartheid government and now by the ANC. But this week he had been visited by ANC officials, who appeared to have reassured him that they were, in fact, not hanging him out to dry.

He countered criticism that he had shown little remorse about the Griffiths murder and other atrocities: crocodile tears were not his way, he said. He emphasised the iniquities of the system. In the old days he had shared the racist Afrikaner view of the world. He walked miles rather than share buses with blacks. "There are many Dirk Coetzees in South Africa," he said. "I am just one button on the shirt."

The implication was clear. If he was prosecuted, or the commission's amnesty powers were curtailed, other Coetzees would not come forward. The victims could continue to queue up to tell their stories but without the perpetrators there would be no real truth and no true reconciliation. "We must decide what the rules really are. Is it truth and reconciliation or is it revenge?"

Coetzee spoke with apparent conviction. But he is a desperate man. In the eyes of Churchill Mxenge, Coetzee is hiding behind the commission. And he, for one, will not rest until Coetzee has paid for an atrocity he cannot forgive, the brutal taking of his brother's life.