South African truth commission ends painful hearings
Desmond Tutu: 'Let us shut the door on that past'July 31, 1998
Web posted at: 6:10 p.m. EDT (2210 GMT)
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CAPE TOWN, South Africa (CNN) -- After more than two years of often-wrenching testimony about crimes and human rights abuses committed during the apartheid era, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission held its final public hearing Friday.
"We are overwhelmed by the awfulness of evil that has been revealed, but we are exhilarated by the incredible magnanimity of people," said the commission's chairman, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, in a televised address.
"Let us shut the door on that past and now move forward together to enjoy the glorious future which God is holding out to all of us," he said.
The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was set up in 1995 by the black-majority government of President Nelson Mandela to investigate crimes committed during the nearly five decades that South Africa was governed under apartheid, a system of strict racial separation and white-minority rule. The first hearing was held on April 15, 1996.
The commission looked at the actions of both government forces and black guerrilla movements, including Mandela's African National Congress. The president's ex-wife, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, was subjected to nine days of scrutiny.
People who came forward and testified truthfully in front of the commission about their actions became eligible for amnesty. Those who chose not to come clean could face eventual prosecution.
Chief among the holdouts is former hard-line President P.W. Botha, who dismissed the commission as a circus. He is now on trial for refusing to appear.
Although the hearing process ended Friday when the commission lost its authority to subpoena witnesses, its work will continue.
The panel will issue a final report in October, and it still has to deal with thousands of applications for amnesty and about 20,000 claims for reparations from victims, a process that is expected to drag well into 1999. And there is still some hope that Botha may appear.
While the goal of the commission was to establish a truthful record of the apartheid era and bring black and white South Africans together, a poll published earlier in the week showed most people think the panel's work worsened, rather than healed, racial tensions.
"The survey merely indicates in a sense what one would have expected," Tutu said. "If you uncover the ghastly atrocities that took place ... it would be very, very odd indeed if people suddenly then were ecstatic and said, 'It's wonderful.'"
"But the truth is quite crucial to the process of reconciliation, and we have made a very signal contribution to that," he said.
The final witness Friday was Wouter Basson, who headed South Africa's chemical and biological warfare programs under white-minority rule. He has been dubbed "Dr. Death" by the South African media.
Basson, a reluctant and often pugnacious witness, denied charges leveled in earlier testimony that he was part of a secret effort to poison Mandela. He also denied telling his scientists to develop ways to reduce black women's fertility or to find a bacteria that would kill only black people.
Basson said items his unit allegedly made -- chocolates laced with cyanide, cigarettes tainted with anthrax and whisky containing paraquat, a weed killer -- were only used to train agents charged with preventing assassinations.
"As far as I know, not a single person was harmed by these items," he said.
He also said that the United States and other Western countries shared military secrets with him concerning chemical and biological warfare. In exchange, he said he provided information on the chemical weapons capability of Soviet, Cuban and East German forces stationed in neighboring African states.
A document marked "top secret" and written in Basson's handwriting reported on a conference in the United States in May 1981 in which he describes the ease with which he obtained information from military personnel from Germany, the United States, Japan, Canada and Britain. A similar memo mentions Taiwan.
Basson is due to go on trial next month for fraud, conspiracy to commit murder and manufacturing the drug ecstasy.
Reuters contributed to this report.
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