SA braced for 'truth' about its racist past

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The Independent Online


One-and-a-half years after the death of apartheid, South Africa is ready to exhume its past. President Nelson Mandela this week named the 17 members of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose job over the next 18 months will be to root out the crimes of the apartheid years. Work on the grim task will begin in the next few weeks.

Although the body is headed by the respected Nobel Prize-winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and although the former ruling National Party has accepted the appointment of the commission, there may be trouble ahead.

There are already rumblings which indicate that Archbishop Tutu's panel is going to have a difficult time, and that its findings could shatter the pact under which whites and blacks have agreed to live side-by-side.

The commission panel is about more than exposing the abuses of white minority rule and the struggle to overthrow it. Its chief aim is to foster a national reckoning by uncovering the truth about the violence of the past, and in doing so, aid the healing of South Africa's psyche. It has the power to grant amnesty to those who offer "full disclosure" of past wrongdoings, or to recommend the prosecution of those who don't.

"I hope that the work of the commission is going to help to pour balm on wounds which we will open to cleanse so that they don't fester ... so that we can then say let those bygones be bygones and let us now concentrate on ... the future," Archbishop Tutu said.

The panel is similar to other "truth" commissions set up in Eastern Europe and Latin America to explore the crimes of past governments. Many of those have been criticised either for whitewashing history in the name of political expediency or for using their findings to discredit political opposition. Often, in the rush to forge a modus vivendi between the oppressor and the oppressed, the victims of violence have been ignored. South Africa is hoping its experiment will somehow turn out differently.

For President Mandela and the country's black majority, the commission's work is essential for the future. For them there can be no reconciliation unless those responsible for apartheid-era crimes face up to their guilt. But for many conservative white South Africans, the past would be better forgotten and forgiven without the theatricals.

Whites, particularly Afrikaners, fear the commission will be little more than a one-sided tribunal seeking to punish their former leaders and generals. Many, like former president PW Botha, have said they will refuse to co-operate. They say Mr Mandela's commitment to reconciliation has been suspect since the arrest of General Magnus Malan and 10 senior officers for 13 apartheid-era murders.

The general and his co-defendants appeared in a Durban court yesterday to hear the charges detailed and will go on trial in March.

General Malan has become the main focal point for opposition to the Truth Commission. They say the general is proof that the President and his African National Congress (ANC) want to humiliate and punish only former government personnel while glossing over the excesses of their own people.

In a taste of the kind of political debate to come, Mr Mandela started a nasty round of mudslinging with his deputy, FW de Klerk, over the Malan case and the question of indemnity for former government officials.

The President has steadfastly refused appeals by Mr de Klerk to grant the "Malan 11" indemnity. Last weekend, Mr Mandela called Mr de Klerk "a joke" for suggesting that if the trial were to proceed, then "even- handedness" demanded that senior ANC officials who received indemnity from the last white minority government should be prosecuted for their crimes.

The bitterness of the exchange led commentators to conclude that the government of national unity and the Mandela-De Klerk political marriage were on the rocks. Sensing trouble, Mr Mandela moved this week to defuse the row. He praised Mr de Klerk and told the media not to exaggerate differences between them.

"Our relationship is determined by our friendship, our respect for each other and added to that is the question of necessity. He needs me, I need him ... like it or not that is the reality," the President said.

While there is little doubt that Mr Mandela needs Mr de Klerk to assuage white fears over black rule and provide financial stability in the white- dominated economy, there is a widespread belief that General Malan's trial and the Truth Commission's investigations could lead to revelations which would force Mr de Klerk to resign.