Seeking answers to heal the bitter wounds of the past

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was the foundation of South Africa's remarkable negotiated transfer of power. After decades of gross human rights abuses, including state-backed assassinations and torture, the country needed a mechanism for dealing with its past, writes Mary Braid.

A negotiated deal between the African National Congress and the National Party ruled out Nuremburg-style trials. And if all the guilty men had been pursued through the courts, it would have paralysed the justice system.

Thabo Mbeki, now the country's deputy president, and Kadar Asmal, now a government minister, came up with the idea of an independent Commission. The TRC would expose the truth about the apartheid era as a first step to healing a divided nation. The Commission began with public hearings for thousands of victims which proved harrowing but relatively uncontroversial.

In return for the truth, the TRC also offers perpetrators amnesty if they fully disclose their crimes and prove they were politically motivated. Victims are then barred from taking civil or criminal action against them. Last month the amnesty hearings began in earnest and are proving far more divisive as the killers of liberation heroes step forward.

There are complaints that whites ignore the TRC. It is also claimed that the politicians who gave the orders are escaping, while the foot soldiers take the rap. The National Party, on the other hand, now claims that the TRC is conducting a witchhunt against it, and the Zulu Inkatha Freedom Party alleges the same.

The commission should have finished work in June but has been extended to December.