Forging a New S. Africa with Contrition, Mercy Truth and Reconciliation Commission Ended Bulk of Its Work June 30. Some 7,500 People Applied for Amnesty

By Kurt Shillinger, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 3, 1998 | Go to article overview

Forging a New S. Africa with Contrition, Mercy Truth and Reconciliation Commission Ended Bulk of Its Work June 30. Some 7,500 People Applied for Amnesty


Kurt Shillinger, Monitor, The Christian Science Monitor


Limpho Hani is coping. For the moment that is all she will say. But her voice, as taut and neat as her lime-toned suit, resonates with an angry nervousness she won't express in words.

Five years ago, Chris Hani, the Communist Party leader whose popular appeal nearly rivaled President Nelson Mandela's, was gunned down in his driveway a year before South Africa's first democratic elections.

Now the widow faces the possibility of another painful sacrifice - this time, she is told, for her country's fragile future. For several weeks she sat silently through public hearings as two assassins described how they hoped to sow anarchy by killing her husband, how one of them drank tea and went shopping to celebrate the accomplished hit.

And now Ms. Hani and her husband's followers wait on tenterhooks to see if, by the discomforting calculus of South Africa's experiment in social healing, they will be asked to watch the killers go free - to accommodate them as fellow citizens, perhaps even to forgive them.

"If Janusz Walus and Clive Derby-Lewis are given amnesty" for killing Hani, says Charles Villa-Vicencio, TRC research director, "the nation will have to sit down again and acknowledge the price it chose to pay for peace and coexistence."

Healing the past

The Hani story is a crucial test case of the principles behind South Africa's groundbreaking attempt to expunge its painful past. But it is also just one of thousands. As part of its carefully negotiated transition from apartheid to democracy earlier this decade, the country established a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate gross human rights violations committed between March 1, 1960, a few weeks before police fatally shot 69 black protesters in the township of Sharpeville, and May 10, 1994, when Mr. Mandela was inaugurated as president.

The commission reflected a decision by South African leaders of various backgrounds to expose the evils in their past - not as an excuse for retribution - but in the theory that the truth would free the country to create a just and equitable future. Instead of launching full-scale witch hunts and demanding punishment for atrocities committed by both sides, the decision sought to establish post-apartheid South Africa on a moral foundation - one the country could build on.

Unlike the 13-odd truth commissions that preceded it in other countries, the TRC was vested with unprecedented powers to subpoena perpetrators, grant amnesty in exchange for full disclosure of politically motivated acts, and approve reparations for victims.

For two years the TRC has held hearings in plush-carpeted offices and crowded township halls across the country. It gave victims an opportunity to tell their stories for the first time. It held special inquiries on the roles of the media, judiciary, medical community, and business in perpetuating apartheid. Some 20,000 victims made submissions to the TRC, and 7,500 others applied for amnesty.

Beyond all other provisions, the amnesty grant is the most important. Perpetrators who make full disclosures of politically motivated acts may gain immunity from prosecution.

TRC Commissioner Dumisa Ntsebeza argues that, beyond encouraging the flow of facts about the apartheid era, amnesty requires acknowledgment of wrongdoing, which is critical to the TRC's notion of reconciliation: "Applicants testify in public. Such an exposure is its own punishment, and thus an element of justice itself."

But for people like Hani, what serves the collective good often strains the individual. Perpetrators are not required to show remorse, and many have not. While they live with the consequences of past abuses, the aggrieved are asked to accept their antagonists' freedom.

Given only two years to complete its work, the commission shut down all but its research and amnesty work on Tuesday. In October, it will issue a final report intended to present the fullest possible picture of the apartheid era. …

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