Forgiveness -- or revenge South Africa: Pardons for apartheid atrocities test country's resolve for a new beginning.

September 08, 1997

IN ITS YEAR and a half of operation, South Africa's extraordinary Truth and Reconciliation Commission has had plenty of critics. Some think it is a "Kleenex commission" that attempts to wipe away apartheid-era crimes. Others see it as a witch hunt. Yet others cannot understand how Nelson Mandela's government can so readily turn the other cheek and promise amnesty to those acknowledging their responsibility in atrocities.

So far, the commission has granted amnesty to 47 people who have made a full confession to crimes that were committed between the 1960 Sharpeville massacre and the end of apartheid in 1993. Nearly 2,500 amnesty requests have been rejected because a political motive, a prerequisite for pardon, could not be established.

Dozens of high-profile cases are pending. Among them is the 1993 killing of Chris Hani, the charismatic South African Communist Party leader who was so popular he was mentioned as a possible successor to President Mandela. He was gunned down by two whites who wanted to "strike a blow for almighty God" and derail their country's peaceful transition to black majority rule. Because they had political motives, however, the killers may go free.

The possibility of amnesty in the cold-blooded and calculated Hani murder is providing ammunition to those who think the whole forgiveness program is misguided and undermines justice. More criticism is sure to follow in the next few weeks as the 20th anniversary of Steve Biko's Sept. 12 murder approaches. The Black Consciousness movement leader was liquidated by security police. His killers, too, claim political motives and may qualify for amnesty.

Among those who have asked for amnesty are former white officials as well as activists in the African National Congress. Even Winnie Mandela, the president's former wife, is due to testify. She will be grilled about her role in the 1989 killing of a 14-year-old Soweto activist.

Commission hearings have reopened old wounds. But one of the panel's members explains that the "Truth and Reconciliation Commission starts with the assumption that the truth will heal and rebuild a shattered past."

Pub Date: 9/08/97

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