JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- Until last week's startling evidence against the former apartheid government -- from its own perpetrators of violence -- South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission seemed destined to become little more than background noise in the cacophony of transition.
The commission is designed to bring forth confessions of the brutal truth from the henchmen of apartheid -- the period in this country's history from 1960 to 1993 when white supremacy was the law and thousands died in the struggle against it. People would testify in exchange for amnesty in the hope that this will help to heal the awful wounds of the past.
Since it opened its hearings in April, the commission's appearance on the nightly news and in daily newspapers has been an unending series of tales of atrocity, mostly black people telling of abuse at the hands of the government security forces of the apartheid era.
Eventually, for all but the most dedicated listeners, the stories began to acquire a dull monotony. While there was clearly catharsis for many of the victims, cynics who had seen one too many crying widow on TV dubbed it "The Kleenex Commission."
"I don't pay any attention to it," said a white businessman from Cape Town, who asked not to be identified. "For one, I think it's a witch hunt. Secondly, it's run by the ANC [Nelson Mandela's African National Congress], so we all know how it's going to come out, like they want it to. And it just reminds me of the bad times I'd rather forget."
The vision of reconciliation -- a black victim telling the commission of his torture by the police, followed by a white policeman confessing that he had indeed tortured the man and asking for forgiveness -- seemed impossible to fulfill.
Virtually all the applications for amnesty -- those seeking to confess politically motivated crimes in return for forgiveness -- came from prisoners seeking to get out of jail. And most of those were criminals who had nothing to do with politics and were quickly rejected.
But last week all that changed.
A retired head of the old South African police, testifying in the amnesty application of five lower-level police officials, told of ordering the 1988 bombing of the building that housed the South African Council of Churches, believed to be a hotbed of liberation organizations. He also took responsibility for slipping hand grenades that would explode prematurely, into the hands of black activists. Eight people were killed by such grenades in 1986.
When the police officers themselves began their testimony, they described the reign of terror they inflicted on the people they regarded as terrorists. If someone was suspected of burning down a house, his house was burned down. If the courts were considered too clumsy in punishing the opponents of apartheid, a suspect was murdered.
Brutal interrogation tactics were routine. Often, the burnings and killings were done by black police operatives -- some turned after a torture session -- so the incidents could be dismissed as "black-on-black violence."
Alex Boraine, vice chairman of the truth commission, described the past week as "the dam wall breaking." The picture that had seemed so impossibly muddled began to clarify, the one that the truth commission was supposed to paint when it was set up as part of the settlement that led to South Africa's new constitution.
"I think the criticism that we did not go after the perpetrators enough is justifiable to some extent," said Desmond Tutu, the Nobel-prize winning retired archbishop of the country's Anglican church who chairs the commission. "But we took the deliberate decision from the outset that our concentration was going to be on the victims."
Tutu argued that if perpetrators had been the focus in the beginning, they would have essentially dictated the commission's agenda, and would have been back in charge as they were under apartheid.
"They would have been calling the shots. We said, no, let these people who have for so long been marginalized be given this forum, this platform, where the nation hears their story and acknowledges what happens to them and somehow says, 'Sorry.' "
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was always a compromise between those who wanted to punish the apartheid criminals and those who thought it was better if the slate of the past were wiped clean.
It has become clear that the carrot of amnesty is not attractive enough without the stick of potential prosecution. The five policemen came forward in the wake of the successful prosecution of Eugene de Kock, one-time head of the police unit notorious for its apartheid-era assassinations. The five were on a list of 22 potential targets of the attorney general and two have subsequently been charged.
Nor is it coincidental that the truth commission is having trouble getting straightforward statements out of apartheid-era military officials after the unsuccessful prosecution of former Defense Minister Magnus Malan and several other military officers for allegedly masterminding a 1987 massacre.
Though testimony could lead high into the previous government, Tutu cautions about putting too much emphasis on such victories. He said the commission had reasons for being reluctant to use its subpoena and investigative powers.
"We were trying as far as possible to alleviate the impression that we are a witch hunt," he said. "It's not a witch hunt. We are not looking to find out the truth about people so we can prosecute them.
"But now we are going to change our emphasis in part because the people we have been hearing from, the victims, have been telling us from the beginning, that they want to know who did this, where is the body of their loved ones, we want their remains. So we are moving in the direction now of trying to get as many perpetrators as we can to come and testify."
Still, even if the commission gets confessions from all the top policemen and politicians of the apartheid era, most of the questions asked by the victims will still go unanswered.
Most of the atrocities were carried out, not by the top brass, but by local police. An overburdened criminal justice system is not about to prosecute such low-level figures, so there is little chance that many of them will apply for amnesty.
Moreover, the commission has heard little from perpetrators from the side of the black liberation struggle, those who fought against apartheid by killing policemen and collaborators for whom death often came from necklacing -- burning a kerosene-filled tire around a victim's neck.
Without that, many in the white community will continue to dismiss the Commission as a witch hunt, damaging its ability to fulfill its mission of reconciliation.
The daily stories told to the truth commission are truly horrible. Countless people have described similar methods of torture -- endless beatings, electrodes connected to genitals, plastic bags over the head until asphyxiation is imminent. There is no way the commission will be able to afford compensation for all.
"This was the first truth commission in the world to pay any attention to the victims," said Brian Hamber who has worked with many victims as an official of Johannesburg's Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation.
He said that the positive effect of a previously anonymous victim getting to tell his or her story, should not be underestimated.
Hamber says that many victims will have to be satisfied with something akin to the United States' Vietnam Veterans Memorial, a place where they can go to mourn their loved ones.
"Many people tell me we should just wipe the slate clean," said George Bizos, a longtime civil rights attorney who defended Nelson Mandela among others, after listening to a day of testimony before the amnesty committee.
"I tell them that before we wipe the slate clean, we should make sure something is written on it."
Pub Date: 10/27/96