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Truth has consequences in probing apartheid


IVY GCINA has lived in agonizing uncertainty since 1985 when her activist brother, Sipho Hashe, disappeared at the hands of the police, a victim of South Africa's undeclared apartheid war.

Nearly a decade later she wants to see the faces and names of his abductors and presumed killers, but she wonders whether the country's first black-led government can deliver on promises to uncover the dirty secrets of the past.

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Like many relatives of tens of thousands of murdered South Africans - mainly blacks - she hopes a Truth Commission to be set up next year will serve as a balm and finally heal the wounds of a racially fractured nation. The commission will offer amnesty to those who confess.

But human rights groups and bereaved relatives fear members of the apartheid-era security forces may not step forward and that the probe will not go far enough because of continued government secrecy. They believe the new coalition government, led by the African National Congress (ANC), is as fearful as the former white minority rulers about letting the full truth be disclosed.

``You can forgive but you can never forget,'' says Ms. Gcina, who herself suffered police harassment. ``The Truth Commission is a good idea. But the killers must go to court first. We need justice. And we want my brother's ashes and bones for a proper burial.''

Her desire for justice will probably not be satisfied under the current draft bill expected to be approved by the multiracial parliament in February. The bill - a priority of the black majority government - is aimed at fulfilling the dream of President Nelson Mandela, himself a political prisoner for 27 years, for a nation free of rancor that can move on to economic development and further progress toward democracy.

The draft bill envisions compensation paid to victims and amnesty for some people who committed political crimes from March 1, 1960, to Dec. 5, 1993, if full disclosures are made. But the ANC, concerned about alienating the right wing and unearthing revelations about its own atrocities, has backed away from promises of ``maximum transparency'' and agreed to demands by the former ruling National Party that applications for amnesty could be made behind closed doors rather than at public hearings.

Legal sources believe that senior officials of the police and Cabinet, perhaps including former President Frederik de Klerk, now a deputy president, could be implicated if the Truth Commission probes go deep enough.

A survey by the Institute for a Democratic South Africa, a think tank, indicated that intolerance seething below the surface could rise if disclosures were treated insensitively. The Truth Commission ``is one of the most high-risk exercises in the recent political life of South Africa,'' says political scientist Hennie Kotze.

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The survey showed that 79 percent of respondents from both the National Party and the Zulu-dominated Inkatha Freedom Party, 100 percent of respondents from the extra-parliamentary white right wing, and almost 66 percent of whites overall believed the commission could prompt more political conflict. But 73 percent of blacks and 81 percent of ANC supporters wanted it to go ahead.

White security force members may have to face revelations about death squads and the murders of thousands of people, including such high-profile anti-apartheid figures as black activists Steve Biko and Matthew Goniwe and white academic David Webster. Up to 30,000 people at a time were held without trial in apartheid jails.

The ANC, in turn, killed hundreds with bombings and shootings, but in the eyes of many blacks this was a heroic struggle. Less heroic were the 15,000 deaths in fighting between the ANC and its rival, Inkatha, and scores of detentions and tortures of suspected informers in ANC camps abroad.

Hundreds of ANC members received indemnity in the transition to democracy. Their names were published in the government gazette but with no mention of crimes. When an ANC-appointed commission last year detailed abuses at ANC bases abroad, the group apologized but refused to discipline cited officials.

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