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S. Africa Braces for Findings on Apartheid Years

As panel readies report, some contend that it has worsened race relations and question its objectivity. Others say it is helping build better future.

October 23, 1998|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa — The truth will come on 3,500 pages in five volumes. It will cover 34 years of this racially torn country's murkiest history, and almost everyone agrees it will hurt.

The final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission is scheduled to be handed to South African President Nelson Mandela next week in a ceremony in Pretoria. The long-awaited missive will officially conclude more than 2 1/2 years of extraordinary inquiry by the government-created panel into the wrongs of the apartheid era.

Despite the anticipation, few South Africans are expected to welcome its findings. The commission, headed by retired Anglican Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, has roused critics across the political spectrum--black and white, rich and poor, conservative and liberal.

It seems that no one can agree on the truth about South Africa's past, and more fundamentally, there is no consensus about how to achieve reconciliation in the future.

"The Truth and Reconciliation Commission evokes mixed emotions, not least in those of us who have worked closely with the process," wrote Piers Pigou, a former commission investigator, in an analysis of its work. "The commission has laid an important base, but thousands of questions remain unanswered, and I would guess, thousands of perpetrators unchallenged."

In a recent public opinion survey, two-thirds of the respondents said the commission has worsened race relations rather than healed them. Many South Africans question the objectivity of the far-reaching inquiry; as with any soul-searching, many have been ill-equipped to deal with the emotional fallout.

"Unless this is a misplaced display of divine wisdom, it is an oxymoron for any process which admits rumor, gossip, hearsay, sentiment, to talk of a factual finding," Ishmael Semenya, an attorney for Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, recently told reporters. "One would have hoped the [commission] would have helped posterity to learn from the folly of our past rather than to score passing political points."

Madikizela-Mandela, the former wife of President Mandela, has strained relations with the ruling African National Congress. She reportedly is among about 200 people singled out for criticism in the report.

The document delves into human rights abuses by both friends and foes of the apartheid system of racial separation, which saw minority whites dominate South Africa until 1994. The report is based on the written and oral statements of more than 21,000 people, as well as the records of 140 public hearings.

Others expected to be mentioned in so-called negative findings include Deputy Defense Minister Ronnie Kasrils, an anti-apartheid activist involved in a 1992 shooting, and former President Pieter W. Botha, who led the pro-apartheid Nationalist Party during the 1970s and '80s. Even some ANC members are expected to come under fire for alleged abuses during the armed struggle against white rule.

"There are people who have been implicated in gross human rights violations and will be painted in a bad light," said the commission's Mdu Lembede. "That is part of our mandate. Ours was to get to the bottom of what happened in this country."

But much like the Christopher Commission report, which scrutinized the Los Angeles Police Department after the 1991 beating of Rodney G. King, the South African panel's document is expected to go beyond pointing fingers.

The report will make suggestions about what should happen next, including possible criminal prosecutions. The commission's work carries no legal standing. But nothing prevents prosecutors from using its findings to build cases against those who have not been granted amnesty, which the commission will continue to offer into next year.

Tlhoki Mofokeng, who heads a project on the commission at the Johannesburg-based Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, said the panel's success will ultimately be measured by its ability to look beyond the disputed history.

The commission, he said, needs to make strong recommendations about building a better future for apartheid's victims, including finding ways for ordinary South Africans to join in the mission of healing.

"You cannot reconcile the society in just over two years' time, and that was never the objective," Mofokeng said. "It was laying the foundation for what should come next."

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