Mbeki awards one-off payments to apartheid victims

South Africa's President, Thabo Mbeki, has announced a one-off payment of 30,000 rand (£2,500) each as compensation for thousands of victims of apartheid identified by the truth commission.

The move is aimed at those seeking compensation from international companies that allegedly benefited under the apartheid system, which ended with all-race elections in 1994.

Mr Mbeki rejected a blanket amnesty for people who committed atrocities in the apartheid era. But he said his government would not follow a recommendation by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) to levy an apartheid compensation tax on businesses to help pay reparations.

Mr Mbeki told parliament, which sat to debate the final report of the truth commission, that his government would not support multibillion-pound lawsuits filed abroad against several companies.

The London-listed mining company Anglo American and its diamond business De Beers are facing a claim of up to £5.5bn filed in a US court this month on behalf of tens of thousands of South African victims. Khulumane, an organisation representing the claimants, declined to comment on Mr Mbeki's announcement yesterday, saying it would issue a statement today.

The truth commission, chaired by the Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel laureate, was set up by Nelson Mandela in 1995 to investigate atrocities committed under the regime. The archbishop, who handed over the commission's final report to Mr Mbeki last month after seven years of investigation, has criticised big businesses for ignoring their role in propping up apartheid.

The issue of reparations has become an emotive one in South Africa. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission has identified about 20,000 victims, some of whom have received interim relief from the government, who will benefit from the one-off payments.

Mr Mbeki said these payments would be processed during the financial year. "We do so with some apprehension, for, as the TRC itself has underlined, no one can attach monetary value to life and suffering. We are convinced that to the millions who spared neither life nor limb in struggle there is no bigger prize than freedom itself, and a continuing struggle to build a better life for all."

Mr Mbeki said that a general amnesty for those responsible for specific human rights violations under apartheid would "fly in the face of the TRC process". He said it would also subtract from the principle of accountability, which was vital in dealing with the past and creating a new ethos within South African society.

"Yet we also have to deal with the reality that many of the participants in the conflict of the past did not take part in the TRC process," the President said. These included some who treated the process with disdain and others who thought they would not be found out.

Mr Mbeki said he would leave his National Directorate of Public Prosecutions to pursue cases it believed should be prosecuted. But the directorate would leave its options open over decisions on those who were prepared to co-operate in the search for the truth by divulging information.

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