S. Africa struggles to confront its accused Nation must decide if it will punish those charged with atrocities

November 02, 1998|By Gilbert A. Lewthwaite | Gilbert A. Lewthwaite,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- South Africa is faced with a dilemma in the aftermath of last week's findings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which accused some of this nation's leading figures of apartheid-era atrocities.

The question now: What action to take against those on both sides charged by the commission with gross violations of human rights?

They include an ex-president, three political party leaders, a former defense chief, and perhaps this country's best known woman activist, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, former wife of President Nelson Mandela. They span the political spectrum from left to right, and dealing with them poses a major headache for the governing African National Congress.

The commission merely said prosecution should be considered against those who had been refused, or had not sought, amnesty. The commission offered amnesty in return for a full and honest confession of crimes committed in pursuit of a political goal -- either the maintenance or destruction of apartheid.

Many of those blamed for the atrocities -- particularly the political leaders -- have not sought amnesty, claiming they were not involved in human rights abuses.

The decision on individual prosecutions will be made by the attorneys-general of the jurisdictions where the crimes are alleged to have occurred. The commission said that "in order to avoid a culture of impunity and to entrench the rule of law,"a general amnesty "should be resisted."

But amnesty is clearly a temptation.

The notion, for example, of prosecuting the likes of Mangosuthu Buthelezi, leader of the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party and home minister in this country's first black majority government, invites nightmare visions of violence on a grand scale erupting in KwaZulu-Natal, the most volatile of provinces.

Buthelezi has angrily denounced the commission finding that, as leader of the party and chief provincial minister, and minister of police, he was "accountable" for much of the political violence in KwaZulu Natal.

If prosecuting him would outrage the most ferocious of South African tribes, the mirror-image of right-wing violence can be conjured up by the prosecution of former apartheid-era army chief, Gen. Constand Viljoen, now leader of the conservative Freedom Front.

The Front, convinced its largely Afrikaner constituency is being marginalized by the black majority, is pressing for creation of an Afrikaner Volkstat, or people's state. The ANC's agreement to consider such a separate territory within South Africa was part of a deal to head off right-wing violence during the transition to black rule.

There is a strong militaristic streak in the right wing. In its severest form, it is represented by extremist leader Eugene TerreBlanche, who advocated violent right-wing insurrection as the blacks moved to take over, earning himself a place in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission's rogues' gallery.

Realistically, the right poses no major threat to black rule, but it could make governance of a country this large extremely difficult for a considerable period, should it be sufficiently incited.

The octogenarian hero of the right, former President P. W. Botha, a frail and aging symbol of a movement whose time has clearly passed, has been taken to court by the commission for contempt for refusing to testify about his years as prime minister and president from 1978 to 1984, the high period of political repression.

His criminal prosecution for the commission's finding that he fostered a climate conducive to gross human rights violations -- including murder, torture and bombings -- may seem an irrelevance, given his age and failing health.

The ANC's handling of the report has been disastrous. It tried to stifle its publication on legal grounds that it had been given insufficient time to respond to being put in the dock for gross human rights abuses.

What really outraged it, however, was finding the imposers and opposers of repression treated equally by the commission.

"We can never accept that they are equating our struggle to the apartheid regime," said Mathews Phosa, head of the ANC's legal department.

In his opinion, the concept of a "just war" against apartheid -- internationally recognized as a crime against humanity -- merited a lesser form of indictment of the group's excesses.

To the commission, gross human rights violations could not be justified even by a "just war."

Endorsing the commission's view, the New York-based Human Rights Watch slammed the ANC's attempt to "muzzle" the report, and rejected the ruling party's contention "that it should be held to a lower standard of scrutiny because it was fighting a just war."

At home, the ANC's action has brought it widespread censure and accusations of abuse of power.

"The ANC's belief that its human rights abuses were somehow more justifiable than those of others, shows again the corrupting influence of power," said an editorial in yesterday's Sunday Times in Johannesburg.

All this presents a dilemma for the ANC-led government -- prosecute the commission's villains and risk splitting the nation, or grant an amnesty that will throw into question the moral standards of the first black leadership.

Waiting for the decision is Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, accused by the commission of committing gross violations of human rights and sanctioning murder, abduction and torture by members of her notorious group of vigilantes, the Mandela United Football Club, which operated in the township of Soweto.

Madikizela-Mandela is president of the Women's League of the ruling African National Congress.

Pub Date: 11/02/98

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