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Last Updated: Saturday, 11 August 2007, 10:59 GMT 11:59 UK
Apartheid crimes dilemma haunts SA
By Peter Biles
BBC News, Pretoria

In the 1990s, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, chaired by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, granted amnesties to some of the perpetrators of violence and human rights abuses in apartheid-era South Africa. Years later some of those involved may finally face prosecution.

Adriaan Vlok
Amnesties were given to Mr Vlok and other apartheid-era ministers

The Union Buildings in Pretoria are, without doubt, an architectural gem.

I adore the light sandstone, the terracotta roof tiles and the cool passageways of this elegant structure which has been the seat of government since 1910.

This was where Nelson Mandela stood on the day of his presidential inauguration in 1994.

More recently, the Union Buildings were the setting for one of the most extraordinary acts of contrition which South Africa has seen.

Last year, a man called Adriaan Vlok - who had been South Africa's law and order minister in the late 1980s - came to the Union Buildings to offer an apology to the Reverend Frank Chikane, the director-general of the presidency.

Mr Vlok climbed the steps of the West Wing and made his way to the Rev Chikane's office at the far end of the ground floor.

Once inside, he produced an inscribed bible, handed it to Frank Chikane and pleaded for forgiveness.

Then Adriaan Vlok opened his bag again, took out a bowl and two towels and insisted on washing Mr Chikane's feet.

Poison shirt

In 1989, the Rev Chikane had been head of the South African Council of Churches and a leading anti-apartheid activist.

Frank Chikane
Mr Chikane survived an assassination attempt

He had also been the victim of a bizarre assassination attempt by the apartheid state, in which his underwear was impregnated with poison, causing him to become violently ill.

Adriaan Vlok and Frank Chikane have made peace with one another. Mr Vlok has even been to preach in the Rev Chikane's church in Soweto.

Frank Chikane comes across as a gentle and honest man and in that same office at the Union Buildings, he told me he bore no vengeance or bitterness towards anyone - the politicians, the police or the scientists who might have been involved in the plot to kill him 18 years ago.

But Frank Chikane says he is powerless to protect Adriaan Vlok from prosecution.

The former minister is about to appear in court, along with a former police chief, Johann Van Der Merwe, charged with Mr Chikane's attempted murder.

Frank Chikane says the "prosecution" of Mr Vlok and others should not be interpreted as "persecution".

It is for their own good, he insists, to ensure that the matter is dealt with by the courts once and for all and not resurrected in 20 years' time.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was supposed to have investigated all these matters a decade ago.

Witch hunt?

Adriaan Vlok was, in fact, the highest-ranking member of the old regime to apply for amnesty for crimes committed by the state.

Map of South Africa

But he only sought amnesty, and was granted it, for ordering the 1988 bombing of Khotso House - the offices of the Council of Churches.

The issue of poisoning Frank Chikane did not arise when Mr Vlok appeared before the Truth Commission.

Of course, many secrets of the apartheid era remain hidden and much evidence was shredded and destroyed in the early 1990s when South Africa was undergoing its political transition.

Plenty of people never sought amnesty for their crimes and senior figures - notably the former President, the late P W Botha - wanted nothing to do with the Truth Commission.

The move all these years later by the National Prosecuting Authority to charge people is seen by some as a witch hunt. The government is adamant that it is not.

But South Africa's last white president, FW De Klerk, is clearly uneasy that he could be implicated in some way.

He says if prosecutions go ahead then they should be even-handed. That means he wants to see senior figures in the ruling African National Congress prosecuted, if they did not apply for amnesty.

So too does Dirk Van Eck who lost his wife and two children in an ANC landmine attack near the country's northern border in 1985. If there are to be prosecutions, he says, then ANC leaders must face them as well.

Moving on

So what are we to make of reconciliation in South Africa in this second decade of the post-apartheid era?

FW De Klerk
Ex president F W De Klerk began dismantling apartheid in 1990
Mr De Klerk believes reconciliation is more developed than is generally acknowledged.

My overall sense is that there is little stomach for digging over the past. People do want to move on.

But for those who were victims of apartheid-era atrocities, or knew people who were, then there is a natural desire to find out the truth about all that happened.

A former Truth Commission investigator says he is surprised that there is relatively little interest from South African students and researchers about the recent past.

By contrast, he says, overseas post-graduate scholars come here in droves on a quest to learn more.

Perhaps the next generation of South Africans - in 20 or 30 years' time - will finally confront the apartheid era, but by then, it is unlikely the principal characters will still be around.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday 11 August, 2007 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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