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South Africa to Pay Reparations

JOHANNESBURG, April 15 President Thabo Mbeki said today that his government would pay reparations totaling some $85 million to more than 19,000 victims of apartheid crimes, who testified about their suffering before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. "We hope that these disbursements will help acknowledge the suffering that these individuals experienced, and offer some relief." President Mbeki said.
15 April 2003, New York Times, by Ginger Thompson

JOHANNESBURG, April 15 President Thabo Mbeki said today that his government would pay reparations totaling some $85 million to more than 19,000 victims of apartheid crimes, who testified about their suffering before the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

In a speech before Parliament, President Mbeki announced that the family of each victim would receive a one-time payment of $3,900.

"We intend to process these payments as a matter of urgency, during the current financial year," President Mbeki said. "We hope that these disbursements will help acknowledge the suffering that these individuals experienced, and offer some relief."

President Mbeki also announced that his government would not issue a general amnesty for the perpetrators of past abuses, saying it would undermine the seven years of work by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. In its struggle to usher South Africa through a peaceful transition from white minority rule, this country's first black government empowered the commission to grant amnesty to those who came forward with true accounts of politically motivated crimes. But most of apartheid's architects and enforcers stayed away from the inquiry.

President Mbeki said there was little the government could do to address that reality. But he warned that law enforcement and intelligence agencies would pursue any evidence or allegations of apartheid crimes that merit prosecution. And he said the government would continue to seek information about hundreds of people who remain missing.

His announcement followed years of intense political pressure on the government to fulfill its promise to the thousands of victims whose harrowing testimonies of mutilation, rape, and murder illuminated the dark history of apartheid. That pressure mounted last month, when Archbishop Desmond Tutu, a Nobel laureate and chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, delivered the panel's final report to President Mbeki, and expressed concerns that the government had let victims down.

In his speech today, President Mbeki also addressed escalating pressure from South Africa's corporate community by rejecting the commission's call for a wealth tax on businesses to raise reparations funds. Mr. Mbeki said the government would pay reparations from a special "presidential fund." And he invited individual South Africans to make contributions.

In another nod to business interests, Mr. Mbeki criticized lawsuits filed in United States courts demanding apartheid damages from corporate giants including Anglo American, the world's largest precious metals company, and De Beers, the largest diamond producer. He said that the government would not participate in the lawsuits. And Alec Erwin, the minister of trade and industry, said the government would not enforce judgments made in foreign courts.

"Consultations are continuing with the business community to examine additional ways in which they can contribute to the task of the reconstruction and development of our society, proceeding from the premise that this is in their own self-interest," Mr. Mbeki said.

Many political observers, including some of President Mbeki's fiercest opponents, praised today's announcements for addressing the government's moral responsibility to the victims of apartheid while also soothing investors who had expressed concerns about "hidden costs of doing business in South Africa." The speech, observers said, gave something to everyone. And took shots at no one.

At one point, President Mbeki said both whites and blacks were victims of apartheid, and urged people to enter a "people's contract," in pursuit of a nonracial society.

"Some among us suffered because of oppression, exploitation, repression and exclusion," he said. "Others among us suffered because we were imprisoned behind prison walls of fear, paralyzed by inhuman beliefs in our racial superiority, and called upon to despise and abuse other human beings.

"Those who do such things," Mr. Mbeki added, "cannot but diminish their own humanity."

The reparations payments announced by President Mbeki fall far short of the $360 million requested by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. But, Mr. Mbeki cautioned that no amount of money could make up for the suffering.

"We are convinced that, to the millions who spared neither life nor limb in struggle, there is no bigger prize than freedom itself," he said, "and a continuing struggle to build a better life for all."

Graeme Simpson, executive director of the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation, called the payments "insulting."

"There is no magnanimity in this gesture," he said.

Apartheid victims like Ntombi Mosikare said Mr. Mbeki's words stung like salt in a wound. The leader of a support group argued that whites did not suffer the same systematic brutality as blacks. She said victims expected more money from the government, as an acknowledgment of their suffering. And they had hoped President Mbeki would extend reparations to people who were too afraid to share their stories with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.

"We are not putting a price tag on our pain," said Ms. Mosikare, whose 19-year-old brother was killed in a grenade attack against student ANC leaders in 1985. "We only want the country to acknowledge us. What they are giving us is too little."

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