President Nelson Mandela and his African National Congress embarked this week on some risky gambits to help heal South Africa's bloody past and to stem the continuing political violence in the Zulu heartland.
Perhaps the boldest of these moves was the announcement yesterday that the Justice Minister, Dullah Omar, plans to withdraw the immunity from prosecution granted to 73 ANC members by the last white minority government. Among those affected are some senior government officials, including the Deputy President and heir-apparent to Mr Mandela, Thabo Mbeki, Defence Minister Joe Modise, and his deputy, Ronnie Kasrils.
The announcement apparently followed a request to Mr Omar by the ANC and also comes hot on the heels of an ANC statement urging members with skeletons in their closet to appear before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to confess their sins and seek amnesty.
The indemnities were originally designed to allow exiled anti-apartheid activists wanted for political and other crimes by the old white regime to come back for peace talks and the 1994 all-race elections. More recently, they have earned the contempt of conservative whites, particularly since the indictment last year of the former defence minister, General Magnus Malan, for 13 apartheid-era murders.
Critics said it was wrong to prosecute members of former white governments for crimes committed under apartheid while ANC members were protected from legal action for any excesses they committed during the struggle against the hated system. FW de Klerk, the last president of the "old" South Africa and now a Deputy President in the Government of National Unity, accused the ANC of hiding behind the indemnities and has repeatedly called on Mr Mandela to level the pitch by stopping the case against Gen Malan or by withdrawing immunity from ANC members.
ANC officials, however, yesterday denied that their decision was motivated by outside criticism. "We believe we are doing the right thing," Ronnie Mamoepa, the ANC national spokesman, said. "We believe in the correctness of our decision and that only in this way can we bury the past by exposing it. Now the decision may also have the added benefit of pulling the carpet out from underneath our detractors, but that is just a spin-off"
In the statement urging ANC members to go to the Truth Commission, the party said: "The ANC will never condone any human rights violations which may have been committed by freedom fighters during the heat of struggle."
But at the same time there is a consensus within the party that the organisation was fighting a just struggle against an immoral system, and as a whole, does not have to account for the kind of human rights abuse committed by those who created and defended apartheid.
Many in the ANC oppose both the withdrawal of the indemnities and pushing members to go to the Truth commission. Many feel that the move is misguided and feel that they have nothing to account for.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission, charged with investigating politically motivated crimes under white-minority rule, plans to hold its long-awaited first hearings towards the middle of next month.
As important as the indemnity move but riskier, was President Mandela's meeting yesterday with his political rival, Mangosuthu Buthelezi, and hundreds of Zulu chiefs at a palace of the Zulu King, Goodwill Zwelethini, in Nongoma. The meeting was supposed to pave the way for an imbizo, a traditional gathering in which the entire Zulu nation is invited to attend, in this case for the purpose of ending factional fighting in KwaZulu-Natal between the ANC and Chief Buthelezi's Inkatha Freedom Party.
Most of the chiefs are strong supporters of Chief Buthelezi and his quest for provincial autonomy and view Mr Mandela with guarded suspicion. Thus it was no surprise that there were jeers when Mr Mandela told the crowd that he would use his presidential powers to end the violence plaguing the province and to stop "animals from killing innocent men, women and children".
More than 13,000 people have been killed in a decade of factional fighting for control of the province. The ANC has long held that right-wing former security officials and paramilitaries aligned with Inkatha extremists have been stoking the violence and Mr Mandela yesterday accused "dark and sinister forces" of inciting violence.
There were fears that extremists might use the opportunity to attack either the President or his ally, King Goodwill, who publicly broke with his uncle, Chief Buthelezi, and Inkatha, last year. Thousands of police and soldiers were dispatched to Nongoma just in case.
The meeting was uneventful. Not only was it peaceful, but it broke up late yesterday after failing to make any concrete moves towards setting an imbizo. Even so, many people left saying the meeting just might prove to be the kick-start needed to get the peace process in KwaZulu-Natal rolling.Reuse content