Killers, Torturers Out In The Cold

South African president Thabo Mbeki, in his long-awaited pronouncement on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s (TRC) final report, has finally confirmed there will be no blanket amnesty for perpetrators of gross human rights violations during the apartheid era.

This means criminal charges may now be brought against state-sponsored torturers and death-squad killers of the former regime who failed to apply for amnesty because they thought they could get away with their crimes or would not be found out. Mbeki’s pronouncement ends years of negative speculation in some circles about the amnesty issue (see Generals’ Amnesty).    

Mbeki says a general amnesty to those responsible for specific human rights violations under apartheid will “fly in the face of truth and reconciliation”. It will also detract from the principle of accountability, which was vital in dealing with the past and creating a new ethos within South African society. “Yet we also have to deal with the reality that many of the participants in the conflict of the past did not take part in the TRC process,” he says (see The High Price of Appeasement).

Mbeki told parliament, which belatedly sat on April 16 to debate the full report of the truth commission, that his government would pay symbolic compensation of R30 000 (about US$2 000) to each of about 20 000 registered survivors of gross human rights violations. While members of parliament generally applauded this announcement, some survivors who were in the public gallery were not impressed.

They estimate that, had some torturers identified by the TRC not been granted amnesty against prosecution, civil litigation claims of around US$1-million each could have been awarded to the country’s many survivors of torture. None the less, despite the comparatively paltry sum now proferred, this is probably the first time anywhere that a government currently in office has offered any form of compensation to the victims of crimes committed by the intelligence establishment and security forces of a former government.  

The president says the government will process the symbolic payments to survivors “as a matter of urgency”, during the current financial year. “We hope that these disbursements will help acknowledge the suffering that these individuals experienced, and offer some relief,” he says. Besides the symbolic payments to individual victims, Mbeki is also promising long-overdue programmes to provide medical benefits and educational assistance to survivors of torture and imprisonment who were in the frontline of the fight against apartheid.

Given the customary inertia and incompetence of hopelessly unmotivated civil servants responsible for administering social benefits to the poor in South Africa, however, many survivors remain skeptical about the delivery of Mbeki’s promises. Survivors are counting instead on a multi-billion dollar claim against the London-listed multinational gold mining corporation Anglo American and its diamond business De Beers, which profited enormously from the apartheid system.

The claim against the giant mining multinational was filed by attorneys in a US court this month (April 2003) on behalf of tens of thousands of South African victims. Claims against Swiss, German, British and American multinational banking conglomerates have also been lodged on behalf of victims. The South African government, clearly worried about the potential effects these actions might have on future foreign direct investment in the country, has distanced itself from the claims.

The government has also emphatically rejected a proposal by the TRC for a once-off “wealth tax” to be imposed on foreign-based companies operating in South Africa.

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