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South africa { March 22 2003 }

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March 22, 2003
South African Commission Ends Its Work

PRETORIA, South Africa, March 21 Marking the formal end of its work, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission warned the government today against issuing a blanket amnesty to perpetrators of the crimes of apartheid, and urged businesses to join with the government in delivering reparations to the millions of blacks victimized by the former white minority government.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, chairman of the commission, delivered its final findings and recommendations today to President Thabo Mbeki in a quiet ceremony that contrasted sharply with the commission's hopeful and high-profile beginning.

The volumes include a long-awaited report into the inquiry against former President F. W. de Klerk, saying that he knowingly withheld information from the commission about state-sponsored violations. Those findings were blacked out from earlier volumes of the commission's reports because of a 1998 legal challenge.

The report also reiterates stinging charges against the Zulu-based Inkatha Freedom Party, accusing South Africa's second-largest black party of having collaborated with white supremacists in the massacre of hundreds of people in the early 1990's.

Volume 7, which Archbishop Tutu called "a monument to the victims," lists the 19,000 men, women and children who testified before the commission about the brutality they endured under apartheid.

In each case, the report gives a brief summary of the victim's testimony. Over seven years, their harrowing tales of murder and torture were splashed across front pages and televised live, forcing South Africa into an unprecedented public reckoning with its own atrocities.

"We are celebrating our freedom today from the ghastly shackles and vicious injustice of an awful system," Archbishop Tutu said. "We scored a spectacular victory over an evil system."

The commission, which was set up in 1996 as part of the compromise that led to the fall of South Africa's white minority government, had been charged with the delicate task of investigating the crimes of apartheid while ushering a violently polarized nation through a peaceful transition. South Africa's first black government chose to pursue forgiveness over prosecution, and reparation over retaliation.

It offered victims the promise of millions of dollars in reparations if they would come forward to share their grief; it offered amnesty to murderers and torturers in exchange for complete confessions.

The commission charged former President P. W. Botha with responsibility for the system of killings, tortures and abductions that characterized the final years of apartheid.

It also investigated its creator, the African National Congress, finding the party responsible for killings of civilians during military operations, for killing and maiming in its land-mine campaign and for the killing of suspected informers.

But almost since its beginning, the commission's work has been blocked by legal obstacles, raised by some of the high-level officials it aimed to expose, and dogged by disappointment from the people it aimed to lift from obscurity.

Apartheid's most important architects and enforcers did not take part in the inquiry, Archbishop Tutu lamented. Commissioner Denzil Potgeiter reported today that the commission had received more than 7,000 applications for amnesty.

The most significant among them came from hundreds of low- to mid-level police officials. But Mr. Potgeiter, a leading civil rights lawyer, could not say how many of those applications had been approved. Previous reports indicated amnesty had been granted in at least 800 cases.

For years, this country has discussed the idea of a blanket amnesty that would cover high-level authorities and military generals, outside the truth and reconciliation process. Penuell Maduna, the minister of justice and constitutional development, said Parliament would debate new amnesty proposals next month.

Commissioner Yasmin Sooka cautioned today against a blanket amnesty, saying it would "undermine the commission's work," and damage the morale of the victims.

The slow delivery of reparations has already weakened morale, commissioners acknowledge. Interim reparations, totaling about $6 million, have been distributed to some 16,000 victims with payments ranging from some $200 to $600.

Today, commissioners urged the government to speed up full reparation payments, calling them "a matter of national urgency and honor," and the only way to give the victims of apartheid "closure with dignity."

Archbishop Tutu reminded President Mbeki of a proposal to impose a new tax on businesses in order to raise some $360 million in reparations. He argued that the business community helped sustain apartheid and enjoyed important benefits from the white supremacist system.

"It is not altruistic," Archbishop Tutu said, speaking about the business community. "It is in their interest to help narrow the gap between the rich and the poor."

In a news conference, Archbishop Tutu said he saw the disappointment and the incendiary challenges lurking just below the surface of South Africa's peaceful existence.

He pointed to the economic and political distress that has erupted in Zimbabwe, where white minority rule ended more than 20 years ago. And he said that in order to achieve real racial equality, South Africa had to do more to level the economic playing field.

Almost without taking a breath, he added: "Can you explain how a black person wakes up in a squalid ghetto today, almost 10 years after freedom? Then he goes to work in town, which is still largely white, in palatial homes. And at the end of the day, he goes back home to squalor?

"I don't know why those people don't just say, `To hell with peace. To hell with Tutu and the truth commission.' "

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