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

By Kurt Shillinger, Monitor | The Christian Science Monitor, July 3, 1998 | Go to article overview
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Forging a New S. Africa with Contrition, Mercy Truth and Reconciliation Commission Ended Bulk of Its workJune 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 anangry nervousness she won't express in words.

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

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

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

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

Healing the past

The Hani story is a crucial test case of the principles behindSouth Africa's groundbreaking attempt to expunge its painful past. But itis also just one of thousands. As part of its carefully negotiatedtransition from apartheid to democracy earlier this decade, the countryestablished a Truth and Reconciliation Commission to investigate grosshuman rights violations committed between March 1, 1960, a few weeks beforepolice fatally shot 69 black protesters in the township of Sharpeville, andMay 10, 1994, when Mr. Mandela was inaugurated as president.

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

Unlike the 13-odd truth commissions that preceded it in othercountries, the TRC was vested with unprecedented powers to subpoenaperpetrators, grant amnesty in exchange for full disclosure of politicallymotivated acts, and approve reparations for victims.

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

Beyond all other provisions, the amnesty grant is the mostimportant. Perpetrators who make full disclosures of politically motivatedacts may gain immunity from prosecution.

TRC Commissioner Dumisa Ntsebeza argues that, beyondencouraging the flow of facts about the apartheid era, amnesty requiresacknowledgment of wrongdoing, which is critical to the TRC's notion ofreconciliation: "Applicants testify in public. Such anexposure is its ownpunishment, and thus an element of justice itself."

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

Given only two years to complete its work, the commission shutdown all but its research and amnesty work on Tuesday. In October, it willissue a final report intended to present the fullest possible picture ofthe apartheid era.

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