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Amnesty Forum Threatened by Stonewalling

Ex-president, others say they knew nothing of atrocities committed by 'lower ranks' during S. African white rule.


CAPE TOWN, South Africa — For almost 15 months now, the horrors have gushed forth in hundreds of hearings before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, the panel created to record the agony and ordeal of the victims of apartheid--and to provide legal immunity or pardons to those who confess to its crimes.

Weeping survivors, including children, have told nightmarish tales of pain and persecution. Police have admitted to murder. Politicians have confessed to terrorist bombings. Doctors, judges and journalists have conceded that they bolstered the former regime's brutal repression.

"What we are surprised at is the detail," commission Chairman Desmond Tutu, the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize laureate and retired Anglican archbishop, said in an interview. "It's evil in its essence."

He added: "You still are shocked when you hear, 'We poisoned his coffee, we shot him in the head, and we burned his body. And then we sat just over here and had a barbecue.' "

The coming weeks will see even more hellish testimony.

The three blacks convicted of murdering California student Amy Biehl in 1993 will appear on July 8 to seek amnesty. The two whites convicted of murdering Communist Party leader Chris Hani will plead for forgiveness on Aug. 11. Nomzamo Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, the fiery former wife of President Nelson Mandela, is expected to be subpoenaed to explain her role in township violence.

By the time the truth commission completes its work this December, it will have documented a terrifying litany of assassination, torture, arson, rape and other gruesome acts intended to defend--or to fight--the immoral ideology of official racial segregation.

But the commission is now ensnared in a controversy that threatens its credibility.

Former President Frederik W. de Klerk and most other white leaders of the apartheid era have refused to apply for amnesty, saying they were not responsible for crimes committed in the name of white rule.

De Klerk, who lost to Mandela in South Africa's first democratic elections in 1994, enraged the commission last month when he blamed a "handful of people" in the "lower ranks" for widespread torture and other atrocities.

De Klerk, who freed Mandela from prison and began dismantling apartheid in 1990, insisted that he did not know of the "dastardly deeds" perpetrated by police death squads and other security forces, despite signed documents indicating that he had authorized at least some of their actions.

After intense questioning by skeptical commission members, De Klerk banged the table with his fist and angrily accused the panel of bias.

He complained that they were trying to "shift the blame" to him and his aides.

Tutu said later that he was stunned and saddened by De Klerk's response. "To say, 'I did not know,' I find that hard to understand," Tutu said. "I was near tears. I feel sorry for him. I was devastated."

De Klerk's aides later demanded Tutu "apologize unconditionally" and that Tutu's deputy, Dr. Alex Boraine, be fired.

The National Party, which De Klerk heads, filed a lawsuit last week seeking a court order to restrain Tutu and his staff from making partisan statements.

But Tutu is not backing down.

"He says, 'We take responsibility,' " Tutu explained in the interview. "So we say, 'What about this?' 'Oh, no, not that.' 'Well, what about this?' 'No, not that.' At the end, he's negated it all."

Tutu said several National Party members had privately apologized for De Klerk's position.

But Tutu said he was also disappointed that so few whites have come forward to atone. "Whites are among the best moaners," he said. "They don't know how lucky they were. . . . This has been the Great Escape. They should show some appreciation and make some contribution."

The usually ebullient cleric appeared tired and pallid as he spoke. At 66, Tutu suffers from prostate cancer.

Tutu will leave this weekend for two months of radiation treatment at the Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in New York City, but will keep in touch with the commission from an office at South Africa's consulate there.

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