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S. Africa Panel's Truth Report Is Out, but Work Is Not Over

October 31, 1998|DEAN E. MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

PRETORIA, South Africa — Retired Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the Nobel laureate who heads this country's truth commission, is to board a plane this morning for a teaching job in Atlanta. Vice Chairman Alex Boraine is bound for New York. Commissioner Fazel Randera, a physician, is going back to private practice.

"The Truth and Reconciliation Commission is now closed," Commissioner Dumisa Ntsebeza, a human rights attorney, said Friday.

A beaming Tutu added: "We have done it. Now let us move on."

The main work of South Africa's truth panel is formally over. Yet despite the eager exodus of the commission's high-profile staff, its mandate has not ended.

One of the most explosive and divisive undertakings remains: ruling on several thousand amnesty applications from killers, torturers and others who confessed to apartheid-era crimes. How the subcommittee on amnesty handles the applications may ultimately determine the legacy of the entire process.

A miscalculation could severely jeopardize long-term reconciliation, the prized goal of the commission, which delivered a stack of bound volumes 8 inches thick to President Nelson Mandela on Thursday. Too much indemnity will deepen the wounds of people victimized in the past; too little will embitter opponents of the new South Africa, many of whom still hold influential positions in the police, military and judiciary.

The subcommittee, a five-member panel led by a Supreme Court judge, has considered less than two-thirds of the 7,127 submissions, meaning that deliberations will continue well into next year. Hearings begin in two cases Monday.

The amnesty work has been overshadowed in recent months by the bitterly disputed examination of past human rights abuses. However, the anguishing amnesty question lies at the heart of the commission's raison d'etre.

"Justice demands prosecution and imprisonment upon conviction; peaceful and stable transitions, on the other hand, require the opposite," said Laurie Nathan, executive director of the Center for Conflict Resolution in Cape Town. "Amnesty versus prosecution is a major debate that revolves around the tensions between peace and justice in transitions to democracy."

In the lengthy and tumultuous negotiations leading to black majority rule in 1994, it was decided that South Africa would not hold Nuremberg-style trials for crimes of the apartheid era. The former, white-minority government insisted on a blanket amnesty, but the African National Congress and others wanted a more restrictive approach.

The Promotion of National Unity and Reconciliation Act, which created the truth panel in 1995, walked a middle ground. In exchange for confessing and telling the truth, the perpetrators of politically motivated crimes would be excused, no matter how heinous the offense.

"Amnesty is not meant for nice people. It is intended for perpetrators," Tutu wrote in the foreword to the commission's final report. "Amnesty is a heavy price to pay. It is, however, the price the negotiators believed our country would have to pay to avoid an 'alternative too ghastly to contemplate.' "

As the country prepares for its second democratic election, expected in May, few now believe that alternative includes the widespread mayhem and civil war that the act's authors feared just five years ago.

Concerns remain, however, that a mishandled amnesty process could worsen racial and political divisions that remain deeply entrenched from the apartheid past, further frustrating efforts to close that chapter of the country's history.

"The situation has to be understood as a dilemma and managed as such," Nathan said. "You are looking at trade-offs by definition. It is an argument against anyone taking an absolute, dogmatic or overly principled stand."

In July, the convicted murderers of an Orange County Fulbright scholar, Amy Biehl, were freed from prison when the amnesty committee ruled that they met the criteria. In all, about 150 people have been granted amnesty.

The killers of Steve Biko, the anti-apartheid activist who died in police custody in 1977, want to be excused for their crime, claiming that it was politically motivated. So do the convicted murderers of Communist Party leader Chris Hani, gunned down in his driveway in 1993. An apartheid-era security policeman has even applied for amnesty for killing his wife, saying she had threatened to reveal his covert activities.

One of the admitted killers of Sizwe Kondile, a student activist murdered by security forces in 1981, told the amnesty committee that he and others disposed of Kondile's body by incinerating it on a campfire while they enjoyed dinner. They all want to be excused for their crime.

"The buttocks and upper parts of the legs had to be turned frequently to ensure they were reduced to ashes," former secret police commander Dirk Coetzee testified. "We were drinking and having a [barbecue] next to the fire."

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