THE IDEA WAS a novel one: To investigate the abuses of South Africa's white-supremacist apartheid era but not prosecute those whose guilt was established. For nearly two years now, the Commission of Truth and Reconciliation has been at work, led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel peace prize winner.
"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," Justice Minister Dullah Omar explained as the panel was established. "We cannot forgive on rTC behalf of the victims, nor do we have the moral right to do so. It is the victims themselves who must speak."
Hundreds have addressed the commission, either in person or through written submissions. Among the latest is South Africa's last apartheid president, F. W. de Klerk, who repeated his apologies for the "pain and suffering caused by former policies of the National Party," which systematized strict segregation in all areas of the country's life in its 42 years in power. He insisted he never knew or authorized the use of such "unconventional strategies" against government foes as "assassination, murder, torture, rape, assault or the like. . ."
Yet such strategies were often used by a succession of Pretoria governments as they tried to repulse the "total assault" of domestic and foreign apartheid critics. In the end it fell to Mr. de Klerk not only to recognize the realities of racial demographics but to seek an accommodation with Nelson Mandela's African National Congress, a political umbrella group the white nationalists had banned.
South Africa's truth-seeking process is an unusual one. Somewhat similar attempts in former East Germany and Czechoslovakia to expunge those countries from their communist nightmare proved to be almost too traumatic. Victims cried for retaliation.
Mr. Mandela's ANC government truly believes it can create a new type of society, a non-racial country. As past pain and wrongdoings are documented, its commitment to forgiveness is likely to be tested. If not under Mr. Mandela, then under his successors.
Pub Date: 8/24/96