King William's Town, South Africa -- IN A BLEAK cemetery at the edge of town there is a gravestone marked Bantu Steven Biko: Born Dec. 18, 1946, died Sept. 9, 1977.
Steve Biko was a brilliant intellectual leader of the Black Consciousness movement, the most respected young anti-apartheid figure of his time; his friends, black and white, thought that someday he would lead a new South Africa. He died of massive brain injuries while in the hands of the security police.
When I left that graveyard, I thought to myself that I could not forgive the murderers of Steve Biko. It is true that South Africa needs reconciliation -- that the terrible past cannot be raked over forever. But how can one overlook such a crime?
To seek a measure of justice with healing, the South African government is creating a Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. It will carry out a mandate of the new constitution to provide "understanding but not vengeance" for gross violations of human rights in the past, "reparation but not retaliation."
The commission will have investigators and subpoena power to compel testimony about torture and killing in the apartheid years. It will be able to give present or former officials immunity from prosecution -- but only if they admit to what they did.
Some National Party members of the Government of National Unity, notably former president (now deputy president) F. W. de Klerk, objected to the Truth Commission. But when the draft bill was modified to let amnesty proceedings be held in private, it won cabinet approval by consensus. Parliament is expected to pass it soon.
The idea still has its critics. They fear that the Truth Commission will stir up old hatreds. But the minister of justice, Dullah Omar, disagrees.
"Suppressing the truth will not help reconciliation," Mr. Omar said in an interview. "Failure to deal with the gross abuses of the apartheid era will only lead to festering of those wounds."
Mr. Omar said he had no illusion that any commission could uncover all the facts of individual cases. So many people "fell" from the 11th floor of police headquarters or were gunned down on lonely roads or just disappeared. But the pattern of the measures used to crush opponents of apartheid could be exposed.
In the case of Steve Biko, there can be no doubt of the responsibility for his murder. He was in prison, under the control of the security police, when he suffered the blows to the head that killed him. But no court, no inquiry has ever made a finding of responsibility. "Up till now South Africa has not officially acknowledged what was done," Mr. Omar said, and it would make a difference if the Truth Commission did.
"Neither the Biko family nor others have asked for revenge," he said. "What they want is to know the truth."
Mr. Omar himself was detained without trial in 1985. He was taking pills for a heart condition. When the police gave him pills, he noticed that they were different from his usual medication -- and did not take them. He still does not know whether the switch was an attempt on his life.
In Chile, after the dictatorship of General Pinochet, he and others in the military were protected from prosecution by a blanket amnesty. But relatives of people who disappeared, still anguished, are challenging the amnesty.
The South African police asked the new government for such a mass amnesty -- without making individuals disclose what they did. Mr. Omar rejected that approach. "I have no right to forgive on behalf of victims," he said.
Then, last week, it was discovered that the old white government, just before it went out of office last April, granted immunity from prosecution to 3,500 police officers -- and to the police commissioner and the former ministers of defense and of law and order. The last, Adriaan Vlok, has been accused of involvement in the 1988 bombing of the headquarters of the South African Council of Churches, but police officials said they could not investigate because he had been given amnesty.
The courts will probably have to determine the scope and lawfulness or those amnesties.
The new South Africa is so far remarkably free of bitterness. It is important to maintain that atmosphere. But as in other countries with horrors in their past, it is also important to feel and express shame.
Anthony Lewis is a New York Times columnist.