The Economist, Feb. 19
“NELSON MANDELA is an albatross round our necks,” moaned the (black) author of a letter to a South African newspaper last week. Others wrote to agree. Sniping at the beloved former president is rare, but some South Africans think his policy of promoting reconciliation between blacks and whites has lasted long enough. Too few people have been held to account for apartheid crimes, they say. Compensation for the victims of those crimes has been paltry. And the firms that operated in South Africa despite UN sanctions have paid no price.
Mr Mandela’s approach was to forgive and move on. His successor, Thabo Mbeki, has so far stuck faithfully to it, but there are signs of a shift. Last week Gideon Nieuwoudt, a former police colonel, was arrested over the murder of three anti-apartheid activists in 1985. He is also implicated in a car bombing in 1989.
The national prosecution authority says more arrests and “major cases” will follow. At least one former general is under investigation. Eugene de Kock, a former police commander imprisoned in 1996 for a grisly catalogue of murders, said last week he would testify against as many as eight ex-generals if they were arrested.
The government is trying hard to get more apartheid officials to admit wrongdoing. Nearly 7,000 policemen, soldiers, spies and others applied for amnesty to the widely lauded Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), which offered immunity from prosecution in return for full disclosure. Only some 1,200 were granted amnesty, however. Many, such as Mr Nieuwoudt, were turned down because the commission felt they had not told the whole truth. The justice minister, Penuell Maduna, said last week that unless more apartheid officials volunteered information about their crimes, the government might resort to “many miniature Nuremberg-type trials”.
He may have been posturing; an election is due in April. But be that as it may, his words were popular. The arrest last week of four men, including a white builder, accused of beating a black worker senseless and feeding him to a lion, has sparked a tense debate over race relations. Former president F.W. de Klerk worries that racial divisions threaten democracy.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, the former chairman of the TRC, wants more help for the 22,000 victims whom the commission identified. Last April, the government agreed to give some 30,000 rand ($4,500) to each, a fifth of the sum recommended by the TRC. “We have been less than generous with people who have been remarkable,” said the bishop.
Finding no satisfaction at home, Mr Tutu has given evidence in support of one of four lawsuits in American courts against international and South African banks, oil companies and other “snooty” firms that broke sanctions. Billions of dollars of reparations are sought; a New York district judge, John Sprizzo, is now due to decide whether the case can continue.
The South African government opposes such cases, fearing they may scare off investors. It would prefer that the plaintiffs settle their grievances in domestic courts. That is unlikely to happen, not least because American juries tend to be more generous. Meanwhile, the South African government will probably find a way to spare those who confess to political crimes committed during the apartheid era from prosecution. Among those denied amnesty by the TRC were 37 top members of the African National Congress, South Africa’s rebel movement turned ruling party. The list includes Mr Mbeki.