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ANC admits abuses in apartheid war

The African National Congress yesterday made its fullest confession of human rights violations but argued that there was no moral equivalency between its acts of violence and those of the apartheid government.

Thabo Mbeki, the country's president-in-waiting, presented the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), the body which was created to heal the nation by laying bare the abuses of the apartheid years, with a 100- page report which included a list of 34 members who were executed by the ANC in Angolan training camps and an admission that some cadres were killed after being falsely accused of spying.

After Mr Mbeki's three-hour testimony, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Commission's chairman, congratulated the ANC on being the first party to use the word "sorry". The ANC's evidence came the day after FW de Klerk, the former president and leader of the Nationalist Party (NP), offered a qualified apology to the nation for apartheid and past mistakes.

The NP submission was short on detail. Mr de Klerk denied all knowledge of state-backed hit squads, and preferred to focus on the "terrorist" bombings and attacks carried out by the ANC.

Yesterday Mr Mbeki said that the commission's investigation into human rights abuses must take into account that apartheid was "one of the most odious and vicious political systems of the 20th century"; a system judged by the United Nations to be a crime against humanity.

"The overwhelming majority of actions carried out in the course of the just war of national liberation do not constitute 'gross violations of human rights' as defined by the act establishing and mandating the TRC," he said. Even "necklacing", he said, had to be seen against the background of institutionalised state violence.

The ANC had adopted the armed struggle only after decades of futile peaceful lobbying. It was "a last, rather than first, resort", he said. The organisation had always resisted internal pressure to target "soft" civilian targets.

Mr Mbeki's bid for recognition of the ANC's moral high ground flies in the face of the act which established the commission, and which was the cornerstone of the deal brokered by the NP and the ANC to end white minority rule.

Dr Alex Boraine, deputy chairman of the commission said that the act made no distinction between the violence from either side. He and other commissioners had no choice but to suppress their sympathy with Mr Mbeki's point of view.

"Of course there is a world of difference between the violence of the oppressor and the oppressed," said Dr Boraine. "The Dutch resistance fighters to Nazi occupation knifed and killed but they were heroes against an abhorrent system. The fact is this commission is not about justice. It is about truth and reconciliation and national healing. Any other approach would have split this country in half."

He said the commission could only be understood against the background of a negotiated settlement. "If the struggle had been won on the battlefield there would have been a victor and vanquished and the victor would have dictated terms."

Dr Boraine said that in spite of yesterday's testimony Mr Mbeki understood that vacating the moral high ground was the price the ANC had paid for the peaceful transition of power.

Yesterday the ANC said it accepted "collective responsibility" for the violence it had orchestrated. This contrasted sharply with Mr de Klerk's refusal to take responsibility for murders carried out by the security forces although he admitted the NP had created the conditions which allowed them to take place.

While its view that ANC violence had no special legitimacy may go unchallenged, the NP can expect some tough questioning on the limits of responsibility when the political parties return to the commission later this year. Yesterday Mr Boraine warned that he could not accept Mr de Klerk's distinction between the government and its functionaries. "They were as one," he said.