FLAT EARTH

The whole truth

Whatever the ultimate effectiveness of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, it is certainly an intriguing exercise. In every word of last week's submissions by the main parties to the apartheid conflict one could hear the conscious appeals to the judgement of history.

The Pan Africanist Congress, for example, whose supporters murdered an American student, Amy Biehl, in August 1993, admitted that it had a policy of targeting white civilians at the time, but argued that the circumstances justified it. The African National Congress also confessed that innocent people had died in the struggle. And the country's last white president, FW de Klerk, eloquently sought forgiveness from God for the National Party, which inflicted apartheid on the black majority for nearly half a century.

I wish, however, that he could have refrained from once again describing apartheid as a "mistake". Although he did not mean it that way, others have sought to imply that the fault lay not so much in the policy itself as in its application.

When I went to South Africa for the election in 1994, not a few were willing to describe apartheid as a "failed experiment". Worth a try, you know. Some unforeseen side-effects ... And the ultimate unvoiced thought: Perhaps some time in the future, when this lot have had their chance ...

If the Truth Commission serves one purpose, it should be to put a stop to this self-justifying rubbish. Apartheid was a deliberate and persistent injustice, the effects of which will take decades to eradicate. Nobody should be allowed to get away with claiming they did not understand what they were doing.

Spook central

Every week some obscure German government agency makes a pitch for relocating to Berlin. The big ministries are due to move from Bonn in 1999, but even many of these are likely to keep a skeleton staff on the Rhine. Defence Ministry officials, for instance, will be deserting the entire Bundeswehr top brass, who will remain confined to their barracks in the wooded hills outside Bonn.

Many politicians wonder whether distancing the German army from its elected masters is such a good idea, and now a senior Social Democrat MP has discovered another hole in national security. Wilfrid Penner thinks the German secret service, the BND, should also get on its proverbial bike. For various historical reasons, which have more to do with the focus of CIA operations than German geography, the BND lives in Pullach, just outside Munich, but Mr Penner wants the spooks in Berlin, so that the government can keep an eye on them.

There are plenty of other good reasons, too, such as tradition: during the Cold War, Berlin reigned unchallenged as the espionage capital of the world. And the cost of the move should not be too expensive. There are, after all, thousands of suitably qualified staff already living there - former operatives of the Stasi, whose skills have been sadly under-utilised recently. It would make quite a dent in east Berlin's unemployment rate.

Caffeine society

Australians (it says here) produce and swallow more caffeine-laden "energy drinks" per head than anyone else in Europe - to little apparent effect, according to those who have always considered them lethargic.

Nobody would say that of the Japanese, whose "salaryman" drinks have a lethal combination of caffeine and nicotine. Since Austrians are also known as chronic hypchondriacs, they would probably balk at such a mixture. Nor would one expect them to swallow the pitch I once saw for an American concoction called Jolt: "All the caffeine and twice the sugar!"

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