South Africa's final apartheid report focuses on victims

Panel describes torture and deaths of thousands

March 23, 2003|By Nita Lelyveld | Nita Lelyveld,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

PRETORIA, South Africa - The final volume of the report by South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a heavy 976 pages. Heavy, too, are the contents: the names of thousands of South Africans with brief but chilling descriptions of how they were killed, tortured, or left forever maimed or scarred in three turbulent decades leading up to the country's first democratic election in 1994.

The commission's chairman, retired Archbishop Desmond M. Tutu, officially ended the panel's work Friday when he handed the last two volumes of its findings to South African President Thabo Mbeki.

Beginning in 1996 with its first public hearings, the commission took statements from more than 20,000 victims of apartheid - South Africa's system of strict racial segregation, which was instituted in 1950 and lasted until 1991.

It also received applications for amnesty from 7,115 perpetrators of wrongdoing as it investigated serious human rights violations committed by supporters of apartheid and those fighting to topple it.

Tutu said Friday that he thought the commission had made real progress in its efforts "to heal a wounded and traumatized people." But he said he was disappointed in two of the panel's key missions: amnesty and reparations.

He expressed frustration that more white South Africans had not availed themselves of the chance for amnesty that the panel offered to those who fully confessed to, and accepted responsibility for, politically motivated wrongdoing.

He also said the government had been remiss in its duty to victims, who, he said, should promptly be paid reparations for their suffering. The stalling on reparations has upset many victims, who have watched hundreds of perpetrators of crimes receive amnesty while they get nothing.

"They have waited long, too long, for their reparations," Tutu said in the afternoon ceremony held in the Union Buildings, the government offices where apartheid officials once held sway and where Nelson Mandela - the country's first post-apartheid president - was inaugurated. Tutu called the payment of reparations "a matter of urgency and national honor." Of the victims, he said, "We should help them experience closure with dignity."

In October 1998, when the commission delivered the first five volumes of its report to then-President Mandela, it recommended that, as a part of the healing process, the government pay 3 billion rand (about $375 million at the current rate of exchange) to more than 21,000 identified victims - those who lived to tell their stories and the families of those who did not. But the government, which delivered small emergency payments to about 16,000 victims, said it would wait on the larger reparations issue until receiving the commission's final report.

"We will study the report we have just received with the close attention it deserves and respond to its recommendations as quickly as possible. This includes the matter of reparations," Mbeki said Friday while praising the commission. He said it had "ensured that we avoid a disastrous racial conflict that would have cost the lives of many people and denied us the possibility to reconstruct South Africa as a peaceful and nonracial country."

The final report goes to the country's parliament, which will debate its findings.

In its recommendations, the commission urged South African businesses that benefited from apartheid to contribute money for reparations and suggested a one-time wealth tax to make them do so.

Tutu said it amazes him every day that South Africa's transformation to democratic rule has been so peaceful, even though many black South Africans still live in shacks without running water or electricity and go to work for rich white people in big homes.

Nita Lelyveld is a reporter for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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