Will the truth finally out?

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DID THE former South African president, PW Botha, secretly order his security forces to attack civilian anti-apartheid activists? Who was behind the army-trained hit squads used by Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Inkatha movement in its struggle against the African National Congress? And did Winnie Mandela really kill 14-year-old Stompie Seipei?

For answers to these and many other bitter questions, South Africans will tune in to national radio and television at noon on Thursday, when President Nelson Mandela is scheduled to publish the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigating apartheid-era political crimes.

More than 3,500 pages long and three years in the making, the report is supposed to settle controversies spawned by 30 years of vicious struggle for and against white rule. Last week the commission announced "interim" payments of 2,000 to 6,000 rands (pounds 222 to pounds 666) to 1,000 officially recognised victims of human rights abuse. Up to 25,000 applications for victim status are expected.

The chairwoman of the commission's reparations and reconciliation sub- committee, Hlengiwe Mkhize, said it would recommend final packages of up to 21,000 rands (pounds 2,350) per annum for six years, although these would depend on government sanction.

"We believe [reparation] payments should be as close to compensation as possible," she said. "It should restore people's dignity, it should balance the granting of amnesty to the offenders and the loss of the victims' right to sue in civil courts."

Although the commission was also charged with granting amnesty to self- confessed human rights offenders and with helping their victims where possible, the writing of the report is its main statutory function. Not only is it supposed to promote reconciliation by determining the historical truth - a doubtful connection, some critics say - but the commission can also recommend that further action be taken against gross violators of human rights where amnesty has not been sought or granted.

The signs are that few will be happy with the report's contents. The former ruling National Party and many in the white minority have long dismissed the commission, chaired by Nobel prize-winning Archbishop Desmond Tutu, as an anti-white witch hunt. Several high-ranking officials in the African National Congress (ANC) are understood to be among 200 individuals and organisations who recently received notices warning them that their names were likely to be mentioned in the final report in connection with gross violations of human rights.

The ANC is demanding a meeting with the commission to discuss these findings. The commission has rejected any such meeting as improper and - according to newspapers - privately accused the ANC of trying to influence the report's final outcome.

Party sources have angrily accused Archbishop Tutu's commission of failing to make an adequate moral distinction between crimes committed by those defending a repugnant system and those trying to overthrow it. Joel Netshitenzhe, a spokesman for President Mandela, denied reports on Friday that several cabinet ministers had tried to delay the report's publication in retaliation for the commission's refusal to meet the ANC. He said the report was being published earlier than scheduled because President Mandela had voluntarily waived his right to study the report for up to two months before making it public.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, set up as part of the 1993 deal that finally ended white rule, was a compromise to bridge two opposing positions. Many in Mr Mandela's ANC wanted to investigate and punish those behind a wave of state-sponsored violence, and members of the outgoing white government wanted a blanket amnesty for political crimes.

In its three years of existence, the commission has aired the sufferings of victims and the confessions of those responsible for crimes ranging from black propaganda to murder. Many whites said they had not known the extent of the crimes committed in their name. A poll for Johannesburg's Business Day newspaper showed that nearly two thirds of urban South Africans believed the commission's public hearings had worsened race relations, 39 per cent thought the hearings would help bring reconciliation, and 38 per cent - including nearly 70 per cent of white respondents - felt it would not.

The amnesty process is the most controversial of all. Many black South Africans were angered when the commission granted amnesty to Brian Mitchell, a former police captain jailed for the massacre of 11 black civilians in 1988. Although the commission officially ceases to exist with the report next week, its amnesty sub-committee will rule on 1,000 more cases for at least a year, including applications from black racial extremists who launched gun and grenade attacks on white civilians.