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S. Africa: Keep the Promise

March 31, 2003

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission issued its final report on the day bombs first fell on Baghdad. Though the war grabbed the headlines, it also highlighted how relatively peaceful South Africa's passage from apartheid to democracy has been.

But the transition in South Africa is not over. It could still be derailed and its lessons for the rest of the world diminished if South Africans ignore the commission's recommendations for reparations and against blanket amnesty.

Until Nelson Mandela's triumphant 1994 election marked the end of the apartheid system, white segregationists forcibly moved black people to impoverished townships, restricted their work and travel, denied them basic legal and civic rights and murdered or tortured tens of thousands who resisted.

In countries divided between those who suffered under a regime and those who made them suffer, so-called truth commissions have aimed to find a balance between punishing past abuses and moving on. They have been only partly successful. In Chile, for example, government grants of blanket amnesty -- still being contested in courts today -- slighted both justice and truth.

In negotiating to end apartheid and hold elections, apartheid leaders in South Africa demanded amnesty. Opponents urged prosecution, except for some opposition leaders who had resorted to violence and feared prosecution themselves. The compromise crafted to keep the negotiations alive offered the carrot of individual -- not blanket -- amnesty to those from either side who came forward to tell the truth about their crimes. It wielded the stick of prosecution over those who did not. And it guaranteed reparations to those victimized.

The final report recounts the atrocities endured by 19,000 men, women and children. This monument to the truth about apartheid expresses the conviction that history that cannot be denied will not be repeated. Accountability, however, proved more difficult to assign. Only 7,000 people applied for amnesty, most of them low- to mid-level police officials rather than top government or military leaders.

Disappointing? Yes. But not as disappointing as a Parliament that says it will discuss new amnesty proposals next month, even blanket amnesty yet again, while payment of reparations stalls.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was an imperfect vehicle for healing a traumatized nation, but it was the most promising one. President Thabo Mbeki needs to make it work -- by prosecuting those who declined to come forward and keeping the promise of reparations to their victims.

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