Truth panel hopes to lay to rest ghosts of an apartheid past Five witnesses tell their stories as commission begins its work in S. Africa

April 16, 1996|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

EAST LONDON, South Africa -- In a day of testimony that seemed to sum up all the possibilities and pitfalls that lie ahead, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission began its work yesterday.

Chaired by Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the 17-member commission faces the monumental task of dealing with the crimes of the apartheid era.

The commission can provide neither the justice that so many victims of the abuses of those years crave, nor the forgive-and-forget clean slate that others think is needed in the new South Africa.

Instead, it offers the victims a chance to tell their stories and possibly compensation for their suffering. The perpetrators might win amnesty if they come forward and confess their deeds. They might be prosecuted if they remain silent.

"We long to put behind us all the pain and division of apartheid along with all the violence that ravaged the country in its name," Archbishop Tutu said. "We are charged with unearthing the truth of our dark past, to lay to rest the ghosts of the past so they will not return to haunt us.

"We are charged with helping a traumatized and wounded people, for all of us in South Africa are wounded people."

The commission heard five witnesses' testimony, which was interrupted 45 minutes because of a bomb scare. The witnesses, like all the commission will hear, were chosen to try to begin to illustrate the complete picture of what went on in the apartheid years.

Only a fraction of those who give statements to the commission's staff will testify in the public hearings. Yesterday's testimony showed what a complex and difficult picture eventually will emerge.

Nohle Mohapi told of the death of her husband in police custody two decades ago. When he died in 1976, Mapetla Mohapi was one of the leaders of South Africa's Black Consciousness Movement. Its best-known figure, Steve Biko, died the next year, also in police custody.

Mrs. Mohapi told of relentless police raids, searches, arrests, bannings and other harassment. Her husband told her horrific tales of torture by the police. She told the commission that in August 1976 the police knocked on her door once again.

"The policeman said, 'I am here to tell you that Mapetla hanged himself with a pair of jeans.' He said it that bluntly. Without thinking, I said, 'No, not Mapetla.'

"This was a person with a vision for the future, with a plan for his life and his family and his country as a whole."

Subsequent investigations concluded that it could not be determined who was responsible for his death. Mrs. Mohapi continued to work with Biko, and was ultimately detained and banned herself.

Biko's widow, Nontsikelelo, opposes the commission's work. She and several other survivors want the courts to stop the commission's granting of amnesty so those who committed abuses can be sued for their actions. The commission also is facing a court challenge from a group of whites who fear being named as perpetrators in an open hearing.

Yesterday's session also heard tales of relentless persecution from three Port Elizabeth area women. A decade ago, their husbands left for a meeting at the airport. The women never saw them again.

All were active in the Port Elizabeth Black Civic Organization, a group that sought to organize black areas and achieve many of the political goals of the then-banned African National Congress.

The women told of years of late-night police raids -- of being rousted from bed, their children jolted awake, their quarters torn apart in searches, and their houses stoned and fire-bombed. They said several witnesses claimed to have seen the three men taken by the police at the airport and alive at police stations and prisons in various parts of the country. But the police denied any knowledge of the trio's fate and, again, investigations at the time could reach no conclusion.

"If they killed my husband, I would like him to be brought home so I can make a dignified burial for him. I would like whoever did it to confess, to identify the perpetrators. Then I will be able to reconcile with this," said Nomali Galela, whose husband, Champion Galela, was one of the three.

The last witness of the day told a different story. Carl Webber, now 38, was a working-class white man in East London in 1991 when he and a friend stopped by a bar in the Highgate Hotel for a drink.

Soon afterward, masked gunmen entered the bar and riddled it with rounds from AK-47s. Five, including Mr. Webber's friend, died. Mr. Webber lost his left arm below the elbow and has 60 percent use of his right arm. He has been unemployed since the attack and lives on a disability pension of about $125 a month.

"My life changed overnight," he said. "I became a disabled person. It's taken some time, but I've had to accept it."

Mr. Webber said he would like to see the people responsible for the attack go on trial, but he also would like to hear their explanation for their actions if they come before the Truth Commission. It is widely believed that the armed wing of the Pan Africanist Congress was responsible for this and several similar attacks.

"I can't deny that it would hurt if I knew he was a free man on the street if he applied for amnesty," Mr. Webber said of the man he saw doing the shooting. "He killed and disabled innocent people. But if amnesty is granted, one just has to accept it."

Mrs. Mohapi said she was glad to support the commission's work under South Africa's first democratically elected government.

"What I would like to see is some sort of memorial where all those who fought here can be remembered," she said after her testimony. "So if you feel down, you can go there to remember and put a wreath and maybe feel better."

Pub Date: 4/16/96

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