Apartheid's Intractable Legacy - Ruling by S. African Court Stirs New Debate Over How to Reconcile the Past

Nomonde Calata, whose husband Fort Calata was killed along with three other activists in 1985, wants to see their case tried in court. Video by Karin Brulliard/The Washington Post, Edited by Francine Uenuma/washingtonpost.com
By Karin Brulliard
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, February 15, 2009

CRADOCK, South Africa -- People gather in this desert town each year to remember Nomonde Calata's husband and three other activists who were abducted and brutally killed by the apartheid state in 1985. A memorial is being built on the coast a few hours to the south. Those are nice gestures, Calata said, but she wants something that has proved far more rare in democratic South Africa.

"If these people get prosecuted and found guilty for what they did," Calata said in her living room on a recent morning, "that is the one thing that will set me free."

The case of the Cradock Four, as the men are known, is part of the so-called unfinished business of South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, whose televised hearings helped smooth the transition to majority rule in 1994. But delays in prosecuting such cases indicate the complexity of addressing past violence and the challenge that other African countries may face as they seek to do the same.

Although the commission granted amnesty to just 15 percent of more than 7,000 applicants and recommended about 300 apartheid-era cases for prosecution, state prosecutors say they have tried 10 -- leaving many victims to complain of abandonment by the government that liberated them.

Victims' advocates hope a recent successful court challenge by the Cradock Four widows and other plaintiffs will change that. In December, a court struck down government guidelines on prosecutions that it said gave prosecutors too much discretion to decide whether to try apartheid-era cases and amounted to a "rerun" of the truth commission's amnesty process.

But the ruling also stirred debate about how to deal with history in a young democracy that depicts itself as a miracle built on the notion of forgiveness. In a country where many blacks remain poor and many white perpetrators walk free, it is a question on which even the widows of the Cradock Four do not agree: What is best for reconciliation -- digging up the past or letting it lie?

"We have had trickle-down reconciliation in this country," said Piers Pigou, a former Truth and Reconciliation Commission investigator who now directs the South African History Archive. "There's been an absence of commitment to those issues because it's likely to raise a lot of hard questions."

Asked why there have been so few prosecutions, a spokesman for the National Prosecuting Authority, which is appealing the December ruling, noted that confessions to the truth commission are inadmissible in court and that cases -- many more than two decades old -- often lack solid evidence. Just six lawyers are assigned to investigate old crimes, he said.

Victims' advocates say they suspect politics is at work. Some contend that the ruling African National Congress stifles probes because it does not want to see its leaders taken to court for violence committed as part of its armed liberation struggle -- an allegation Tlali Tlali, the prosecuting authority spokesman, denied. Others say there simply is no political will for prosecutions among those who fought for power and now have comfortable government jobs.

"Forgive and forget is their message," said Noma-Russia Bonase, who leads victims' support groups in a poor township east of Johannesburg. "But you cannot forget if you are still sitting in the place you were when you were victimized."

South Africa's brutal past remains fresh, and victims of atrocities and their families -- most of whom did not testify before the truth commission -- still cope with lingering injuries and frustrating hunts for the burial sites of disappeared relatives. Public trials, they and their advocates say, would show the state's commitment to accountability and unearth the truth about how oppression and resistance were carried out.

"Victims and survivors are not vindictive," said Marje Jobson, director of the Khulumani Support Group, a co-plaintiff in the recent court case. What is important, she said, is securing as much information as possible "about what people did to them or their relatives."

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