JOHANNESBURG, NOV. 16 -- The exoneration of South Africa's police and army leadership by a special commission investigating the activities of alleged "death squads" said to be responsible for the murder of more than 100 anti-apartheid activists has ignited the first serious outcry over the state of justice in President Frederik W. de Klerk's emerging "new South Africa."

Human rights and anti-apartheid groups, the media and political commentators have lambasted the commission for failing to issue any indictments or shed much light on how so many activists over the past decade died under mysterious circumstances.

They are equally outraged by the government's refusal to take responsibility for the alleged misdeeds of the army's covert unit known as the Civil Cooperation Bureau. According to many reports, it targeted leading anti-apartheid figures for dirty tricks, including Anglican Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and carried out at least some assassinations, if not many.

Human rights and anti-apartheid groups are now accusing the de Klerk government of having appointed the commission merely for appearances, to clear top officials, notably Defense Minister Magnus Malan, of allegations of misdeeds.

The death-squad commission, under Justice Louis Harms, listened to a torrent of testimony for nearly six months about how various police and army agents assassinated or intimidated leading anti-apartheid figures throughout the 1980s. Then it concluded that the witnesses were unreliable and that death squads did not exist. It did say, however, there was reason to consider prosecution in eight or nine cases.

"The Harms Commission report has run true to form in discrediting both the value of government-appointed commissions and the independence of the judiciary," said the private Human Rights Commission.

A sense of a pending whitewash dogged the commission from its inception. The government authorized it to look into whether the slain white Namibian nationalist, Anton Lubowski, was a South African army informer but barred it from trying to establish who killed him in September 1989.

A few days before Harms issued his findings Tuesday, the Justice Ministry released a report on the unreliability of two of the commission's key death-squad witnesses. The report had been written one year earlier, under the direction of Attorney General Tim McNally, who led the prosecution against the death squads for the Harms Commission.

McNally apparently had concluded that his two best witnesses were not to be taken seriously a year before he used them to make his case against the death squads.

Hours after the Harms Commission's 200-page report was released, Defense Minister Malan said he knew nothing about the army's Civil Cooperation Bureau, which had an annual budget of $10 million, or about its activities under his most senior officers, or about any of its alleged misdeeds that even the commission found had "contaminated the whole security arm of the state."

"It is not exceptional that employees and officials of the state commit crimes during their office without someone else being responsible for them," Malan said. "This is clearly a case of employees or officials who in the course of their service committed crimes for which I or anyone else cannot be held responsible."

De Klerk had implicitly admitted that the Civil Cooperation Bureau had run amok by ordering it disbanded last July. He also ordered a review of all army and other covert operations but concluded that there was no reason to call to task the politicians running the offices involved.

"It is now time for calm to prevail in the country and for witch hunts on individuals to stop," de Klerk said. "The events dealt with in the report took place in an era of serious conflict and strife which now belong to the past."

The white opposition Democratic Party, through its defense spokesman, Gen. Bob Rogers, decried that "once again" the government's "political style" of not holding a minister such as Malan responsible for wrongdoing within his own department had prevailed.

Much of the press concurred. The findings, said the Star of Johannesburg, "constitute a dismaying commentary on the failure of public accountability."

The conservative newspaper Business Day insisted Malan "must go" if de Klerk hoped to restore public confidence. And even the very pro-government daily, the Citizen, said, "The death squad story will not die down until all those who engaged in killings and other criminal activities are punished."