Elusive reconciliation

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 November, 1997, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 November, 1997, 12:00am

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission is an unprecedented experiment in exorcising the ghosts of a troubled past. Alone among the many nations that have emerged from periods of repression and turbulence it has offered an amnesty to those who committed political-related crimes, providing they admit their guilt and express contrition in the commission's hearings.

Such a concept would be inconceivable elsewhere. Who could, for instance, imagine Pol Pot being pardoned for the genocide he inflicted upon Cambodia? Or the Gang of Four excused for the crimes of the Cultural Revolution? Only in South Africa, which has shown such success in overcoming the divisiveness of the apartheid era, could such a commission be contemplated. And, even there, its shortcomings are becoming apparent.

In principle, the idea was admirable: using an amnesty to wipe the slate clean and put an end to recriminations over past crimes while compensating victims. The problem is that, far from promoting reconciliation, the hearings are being used for political advantage by those jockeying for position ahead of the 1999 elections.

It was always inevitable that Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, who wants to stand for the vice-presidency of the African National Congress, would refuse an amnesty. But for her former associates, who say they covered up for her crimes and went to prison as a result, it offered a chance for exoneration, resulting in damaging evidence of her complicity in several murders. Yesterday's allegations that the police turned a blind eye to her activities will further assist the ANC leadership in its efforts to undermine her election chances.

But Mrs Mandela is an experienced political combatant who knows how to respond to such attacks. Her testimony is likely to depict the hearings as part of a plot to undermine her, and use this as the opening shot in her campaign for the vice-presidency. Whatever the outcome, the truth will remain unclear, and reconciliation elusive.