PRETORIA, South Africa -- South Africa's new government took the first steps yesterday toward setting up a "truth commission" that will investigate the abuses of the apartheid era and to consider amnesty for some of the abusers.
"If the wounds of the past are to be healed, if a multiplicity of legal actions are to be avoided, if future human rights violations are to be avoided and, indeed, if we are to successfully initiate the building of a human rights culture, disclosure of the truth and its acknowledgment are essential," said Dullah Omar, the minister of justice.
Mr. Omar outlined the basic mission of what he called a "commission of truth and reconciliation" at a news conference in Cape Town yesterday. He said he expected legislation setting up such a body to be ready for Parliament when it begins its first lengthy sitting in August.
"We cannot forgive on behalf of the victims, nor do we have the moral right to do so," he said. "It is the victims themselves who must speak. Their voices need to be heard."
Mr. Omar said that the commission "should consist of eminent respected South Africans and must be broadly representative." It would be given a limited amount of time, say 18 months to two years, to finish its investigations and report to the president, Nelson Mandela, himself a political prisoner for 27 years.
"Gross violations of human rights must be fully and officially investigated with due regard to fair procedures," Mr. Omar said. "The identity of the victims and what happened to them and the identity of the perpetrators must be made known. . . . Truth telling responds to the demand for justice for the victims and facilitates national reconciliation."
The work of the truth commission will be tied to legislation dealing with the controversial matter of amnesty for those guilty of human rights and politically oriented violations, whether committed by government agents enforcing apartheid or members of liberation armies fighting against it.
An amnesty program for political crimes has existed since 1990, and, according to Mr. Omar, about 13,000 people have taken advantage of it.
Some have been high-profile cases: Barend Strydom, the right-winger who randomly shot blacks in Pretoria, killing eight; Robert McBride, the African National Congress member who planted a bomb that killed three in a Durban bar. But most were pardoned for their membership in once-banned anti-apartheid organizations.
With a government representing the majority black population coming to power, the amnesty shoe is now on the other foot. Mr. Mandela's statements in favor of amnesty were taken as good news for right-wingers, particularly members of the police and security forces who might have been subject to prosecution for apartheid abuses. It is expected that giving full testimony before the truth commission will be a requirement for getting amnesty.
At issue now is the cutoff date for violations that could be eligible for amnesty. The current program covers violations that occurred before Oct. 6, 1990. The Multi Party Talks that wrote the country's interim constitution agreed upon the date Dec. 6, 1993, the day that the negotiators finalized the constitution.
Right-wingers have been asking for a cutoff of April 27 of this year, the date of the first nonracial election, which would make eligible the 32 right-wingers arrested in a series of three bombings leading up to the vote. But Mr. Omar ruled that out, saying the date would not go beyond the one recommended by the Multi Party Talks.
The December date does leave open the possibility that the two men convicted of assassinating Communist Party leader Chris Hani could receive amnesty, as well as those accused of the murder of American Amy Biehl and the massacre at the St. James Church near Cape Town.
The establishment of a truth commission has been expected. Mr. Mandela first proposed such a commission last year when members of the ANC were implicated in human rights abuses in ANC camps in neighboring countries. At that time, he said that the ANC would not discipline its members but wait for the findings of the commission which would investigate abuses by those attacking and defending apartheid.
Mr. Mandela reiterated his call for the commission in his first address to Parliament last month.
The proposal was welcomed by Judge Richard Goldstone, whose nonpartisan commission charged with investigating violence is expected to disband in October.
But Judge Goldstone said that he was opposed to naming names, saying this would only serve to keep wounds open and lead to possible retribution. Citing the work of such a commission in Chile, which issued a report that kept the names of perpetrators secret, Judge Goldstone said, "What the victims want is an acknowledgment that a wrong was done to them."
The commission proposal was denounced by Constant Viljoen, the right-wing leader in Parliament who said it would "further hatred and not reconciliation."
"It would serve as propaganda for the ANC to further their political aims," the former head of South Africa's armed forces said.