President Thabo Mbeki extended the possibility of pardons Wednesday to people convicted in political violence that persisted beyond apartheid. Mbeki told a joint session of parliament that people convicted of offenses they saw as political before June 1999 should be able to apply for a presidential pardon in a three-month window starting Jan. 15.
“It is indeed an indication of the deep scars inflicted by our painful past that 13 years after the attainment of our freedom we still have to grapple with matters of persons who committed offenses that might be categorized as political, creating the possibility that we can be accused of having political prisoners,” he said.
He said all parties would be involved in the pardon process which, he hoped, would complete the “unfinished business” from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The commission headed by Nobel laureate Desmond Tutu granted amnesty to some 1,000 people perpetrators of apartheid-era crimes who showed remorse.
Tutu’s commission’s cut- off date was 1994 — the year of South Africa’s first multiracial elections. And many people did not take part. Followers of the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party, which was a bitter rival of the African National Congress, boycotted the commission, saying it was an ANC tool.
The violence between the ANC and its rivals — fomented by the apartheid government — claimed on average 1,000 lives a year between 1984-1994. The killings continued after the multiracial elections in 1994, although at a much lower level.
Inkatha Freedom Party chief whip Koos van der Merwe gave a cautious welcome to the prospect of pardons, although said it came too late. The party says that several hundred of its activists are currently in jail for political crimes that should be covered by an amnesty.
The government has received at least 1,062 applications for presidential pardons by people who had been found guilty of offenses which were allegedly committed with a political motive, arising from the conflicts of the past, Mbeki said.
Those who applied to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for amnesty and were rejected will not be eligible to appeal under the new process, he said. Nor will those convicted of nonpolitical crimes.
This was welcomed by Hugo van der Merwe, a program manager at the Center for the Study of Violence and Reconciliation. He added victims should also be heard, as they were in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission.
Zweli Mkhize, of the Khulumani Support Group which represents victims of apartheid era crimes, welcomed the pardons announcement as a “conciliatory gesture.”
But he said civic groups should have been involved in drafting the plan.
“We are not crying foul,” he said. “All we want is a say in the decision making process.”