No easy reconciliation for South Africans Apartheid crimes report: Moving on is difficult in face of extreme economic disparities.

October 30, 1998

FEW THINGS in South Africa's recent history have created as much controversy as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

Because it was established by the ruling African National Congress, many whites saw it as an attempt to settle scores. Many blacks, too, were suspicious. They could not understand how a mere confession of apartheid-era felonies could lead to amnesty from criminal prosecution, as long as a political motive was established.

Concluding its two-year fact finding, the commission issued a 3,500-page report yesterday that spared nobody. White apartheid leaders got most of the blame for gross human rights violations.

But the ANC also was singled out for misdeeds, as were President Nelson Mandela's ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, and Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi. The white business community was criticized for its complicity, the English-language newspapers for self-censorship and silence.

"We could not pretend it did not happen," said Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the commission's chairman, of apartheid-era human rights violations. "Our country is soaked in the blood of her children of all races and all political persuasions."

Instead of scrutinizing the 46-year span of apartheid rule, the commission focused on South Africa between the 1960 Sharpeville massacre and ANC's rise to power in 1994. It received more than 21,000 written and oral testimonies and 7,060 requests for amnesty. Of those, 4,510 have been rejected, mostly because no political motive could be established. Only 125 amnesty requests have been granted so far; the rest are pending.

The commission report is a remarkable but imperfect document (accessible on the Internet at www.truth.org.za).

While many witnesses clearly lied or claimed not to remember their actions, the commission has documented how the white minority government increasingly decided to resort to killings and reprisals to stay in power. In the end, violence became indiscriminate. Meanwhile, the ANC and several other "liberation" groups used murder as a means of getting rid of those considered spies or otherwise untrustworthy.

None of this is new. But to have an official commission reach this conclusion has triggered a wave of bickering. President Mandela showed admirable judgment by graciously accepting the commission report even as his ANC was in court trying to postpone its release.

Truth is one matter, reconciliation quite another. Time ultimately will heal many wounds, but hostility will simmer as long as race is responsible for the extreme economic disparities among South Africa's population groups.

Creating a more equitable income distribution is high on the ANC agenda. So far, that has been easier to discuss than achieve.

Another difficulty arises from the state-sanctioned nature of most apartheid crimes. Various panels since the Nuremberg tribunal's judging of Nazi war crimes have been trying to determine who is guilty and who is not when acting under government orders, however wrong. So far, no Solomonic formula has been found that satisfies everyone.

None of this is new. But to have an official commission reach this conclusion has triggered a wave of bickering. President Mandela showed admirable judgment by graciously accepting the commission report even as his ANC was in court trying to postpone its release.

Truth is one matter, reconciliation quite another. Time ultimately will heal many wounds, but hostility will simmer as long as race is responsible for the extreme economic disparities among South Africa's population groups.

Creating a more equitable income distribution is high on the ANC agenda. So far, that has been easier to discuss than achieve.

Another difficulty arises from the state-sanctioned nature of most apartheid crimes. Various panels since the Nuremberg tribunal's judging of Nazi war crimes have been trying to determine who is guilty and who is not when acting under government orders, however wrong. So far, no Solomonic formula has been found that satisfies everyone.

Pub date 10/30/98

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