Truth commission methods questioned

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The Independent Online
The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission moves to Cape Town today for what is expected to be a second week of dramatic hearings aimed at bringing apartheid-era crimes to light.

But as the impact of last week's first harrowing testimonies and the screams of anguished witnesses begin to fade, questions are being asked whether the commission will really uncover the truth about the past and whether its hearings will really lead to reconciliation.

The body's chairman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, has said he was extraordinarily pleased at last week's hearings in the Eastern Cape town of East London because they showed the panel's bias towards the victims of apartheid.

"The major purpose [of the commission] is the rehabilitation of the human and civil dignities of these people who have been treated like dirt and that is largely by allowing them to tell their story," the archbishop said.

There is little doubt the testimonies of the first 30 witnesses to appear before what some pundits have called an "historical group therapy session" opened a door on the suffering, pain and brutality of South Africa's past. The testimonies were both gripping and moving.

The impact of the proceedings and the archbishop's tearful collapse at the end of the second day were tremendous. Officials say the commission's offices were deluged with requests from people wanting to tell their stories.

But some watchdog groups have dismissed the tears as theatricals. Paul Peirera, of the South African Institute of Race Relations, called the hearings - in which some victims named their alleged torturers and the supposed killers of their loved ones - a "farce". He said evidence of crimes should go to the courts, adding: "If this thing's about searching for truth, then it should use ways that have evolved over centuries for getting to the truth. You're not going to get respect for the rule of law back until you start applying the law."

Alex Boraine, the commission's deputy chairman, acknowledged that its team of 60 investigators faced a tough task in cracking many apartheid crimes and urged perpetrators of abuses to tell their stories. The commission has powers to grant indemnity to wrongdoers as an inducement for them to come forward. Many former security officers have said they plan to take up the offer.

But two former security officials have brought legal action to try to block the testimony of one woman who intends to accuse them of complicity in the poisoning of her activist son.