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Apartheid sinners confront the truth


in Johannesburg

The time of revelation of apartheid-era crimes is nigh and South Africa will finally have come to terms with its bloody past. If all goes to plan, soon a parade of white security officials, former government-sponsored hitmen and a smattering of black guerrillas will bare their souls to an official truth commission. The carrot to admit wrongdoings will be amnesty; confess past sins and there is a chance of official absolution.

The creation of a truth commission was brought a step closer to becoming reality on Wednesday when parliament approved the National Unity and Reconciliation Bill with only seven no votes from the far-right Freedom Front Party. The bill still must go to the senate before President Nelson Mandela, one of its most ardent supporters, can sign it into law. That, however, is largely a formality.

Approval followed a debate lasting five and half hours which brought to a head more than a year of wrangling within the Government of National Unity. Many parties, especially the former ruling National Party, had opposed creating a commission to ferret out apartheid crimes on the grounds that it would amount to a witch hunt, and would divide rather than reconcile the country. Another factor, although rarely mentioned, was that all the crimes subject to investigation had been committed on the NP's watch.

Nevertheless, Mr Mandela and supporters of the bill insist that the main objective of the exercise is not to open old wounds but to help heal them. "There is a need for understanding, but not for vengeance, a need for reparation, but not for retaliation," Justice Minister Dullah Omar, author of the truth commission bill to investigate human rights offences, told parliament.

The sentiment was shared by Graham Simpson, the deputy director of the Johannesburg-based Centre for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation which helped shape the legislation. "By granting of amnesty to individuals but making their crimes public, they will be prohibited from future political involvement. It is one way to restore confidence and credibility to tainted institutions. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a vehicle for transforming government and creating a human rights culture in society."

Among the commission's primary functions will be to slake the thirst for knowlege about missing relatives, to compensate victims of apartheid crime and openly to admit the abuses of the past to help meet the desire for justice.

The commission, to comprise 11 to 17 members appointed by the President in consultation with political parties, will have power to grant individual amnesties for politcal crimes committed before 6 December 1993.

President Mandela held out the possibility that the cut-off date might be extended to 10 May 1994, his inauguration day.

Such an extension would allow white right-wing bombers who terrorised the country during last year's election to apply for amnesty as well.

However, amnesty is not automatic. In certain cases, it can be withheld. But once the evidence has been presented, however damning, it is not supposed to be used in criminal proceedings.