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South Africa's Truth Commission travels to hear apartheid abuses

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Some victims' families angry at amnesty plan

December 27, 1996
Web posted at: 8:10 p.m. EST (0110 GMT)

From Bureau Chief Mike Hanna

JOHANNESBURG, South Africa (CNN) -- South Africa's mission to uncover the misdeeds committed during apartheid continued this week, as the Truth and Reconciliation Commission went on the road to gather information from people who witnessed apartheid abuses.

Since the commission began traveling, it has heard testimony from thousands of South Africans. Sibongane Malgas arrived in a wheelchair to tell his story. His son was murdered by South African security forces, he said, while he himself was bound, blinded and crippled during brutal police interrogation.


"A stick was put behind my knees, and I was spun like a helicopter, and all the time the mask suffocated me," he said.

It was too much for even Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the head of the commission, to bear. Tutu, a Nobel Prize winner, is adamant that though the testimony is painful to hear, it must be confronted, so the nation can begin to heal.

"We must face this ghastly past and not pretend it never happened, and face up to the beast," he said. "And then, shut the door and say we are going to move together into this glorious future."icon (253K/23 sec. AIFF or WAV sound)

Testimony comes from across the political spectrum. Whites as well as blacks told of how they became victims of the apartheid system, and even people admitting to past crimes are coming forward. Security force officers who committed murder in order to protect the white regime are now claiming amnesty for actions they say were ordered by the government of the day.


Their statement, read by attorney Willem Brits, read: "We call upon the previous government and our superiors to explain certain orders given to us, about which we shall testify, and to admit to authorizing actions outside the normal processes of the law."

To date some 4,000 applications for amnesty have been received. Some are from members of the former guerrilla movements.

Many more are from people who were supposed to uphold law and order in the South African government.

When he appeared before the Truth Commission, former police captain Brian Mitchell had already been convicted on 11 charges of murder, and sentenced to 30 years imprisonment. Claiming that he had seen the error of his ways, he begged the relatives of those he killed to forgive him.

"I understand that forgiveness does not come cheaply. It's something that comes from the heart. And I can just ask the people that were involved directly and indirectly, and were affected by this case, to consider forgiving me," Mitchell said.


Brian Mitchell was forgiven and set free by the Truth Commission.

Some victims' families, like the Mxenges family, remain deeply opposed to the liberation of self-confessed killers. Churchill Mxenge's brother and sister-in-law were killed by security policemen who are now seeking amnesty. As Churchill stood at his brother's grave in a South Africa cemetery, he said he was angry at the ANC government and its Truth Commission, and not particularly inclined to forgive.

"As it is now, they are simply forcing it down our throats, and that is what we're objecting to," Mxenge said. "We are saying justice must be done more, especially when we've got a government that we've waited for more than 10 years to take action against the criminals."

boy crying

For its part, the ANC government, headed by former political prisoner Nelson Mandela, says it will never forget those who died in the struggle against apartheid. Yet, as President Mandela signs the country's new constitution, he continues to support the Truth Commission and its amnesty procedures, agreeing to an extended deadline for applications as well as backing down on a previous refusal to extend the amnesty period until April 1994.

His decision will allow right-wingers who set off a wave of bombings shortly before the country's first democratic elections to also apply for amnesty. More than 20 people were killed in the series of attacks, for which a number of whites have been convicted and sentenced to long jail terms.

Desmond Tutu remains adamant that reconciliation and amnesty are the right course for the country. And, he says, the vision of reconciliation he treasured at the beginning of the hearings so many months ago is being realized. "People who have suffered so much ... bowl you over with their generosity of spirit as they say, 'We are willing to forgive,'" he said.


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