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Stefaans Coetzee is the face of restorative justice

Stefaans Coetzee steps into the room and sits down in the middle of a national dilemma. He looks like a decent young man, hair combed into a side parting, endearing smile and searchlight eyes. He is courteous and sympathetic, strangely likeable, even though he is serving 20 years for killing two children, a builder, and a young man at Worcester's Shoprite Checkers almost 15 years ago.

On Christmas Eve 1996, Coetzee and three accomplices set off two bombs they had hidden in a Western Cape shopping centre. Coetzee - who was 18 at the time - was disappointed, because two other concealed bombs had failed to go off: as a member of the right-wing Wit Wolwe organisation, he had wanted to kill as many blacks as possible.

Now Coetzee says he's sorry. He realises he was wrong: blacks are okay.

Today is no ordinary day for the 33-year-old who grew up in an orphanage in Winburg in the Free State. Head slightly bowed, he looks up at two imams who have finally been allowed to visit him at Pretoria Central Prison. Their two previous attempts failed. The imams are from Rustenburg, where some of their congregation were nearly blown up by two Wit Wolwe bombs outside their mosque.

Now they want to ask Coetzee what it was all about.

In an agitated tone, he explains how his racist views were all a misunderstanding; he would like to talk to his victims - or at least try to - and tell them what was going on in his head.

But as he stares at us, countless questions implode into one: why did he do it?

And the dilemmas remain. Can he be forgiven? How do we forgive what we don't understand? Is it enough just to say sorry?

It's a question haunting South Africa's faltering truth and reconciliation process. Coetzee is one of 149 prisoners short-listed for a presidential pardon that would expunge his criminal record, but the process has released a flood of mistrust and pain which has gushed from a wound deeper than the apartheid past.

It is a wound you still feel sitting with Olga Macingwane in her house in Zwelethemba township, not far from where Coetzee's bomb blew a hole through her life and that of her community.

A frail woman with legs scarred from the blast, Macingwane speaks in a brittle voice about the day late last year when she went to Pretoria and visited Coetzee in prison.

Despite her obvious poverty, in a house with no ceiling that she maintains courtesy of a disability grant, she says she has forgiven Coetzee, and would like others to do the same. "I can say I am happy to have met Stefaans. I told him I forgave him - for myself, not for the other people."

She says her trip to the prison has changed her life in unexpected ways: "You can sit here having a pain, but you don't know who made this pain. Now, when I am having this pain, I know it is Stefaans. I am always saying: 'Oh this is Stefaans making this pain.' It made a change."

Macingwane's empathy is in stark contrast to Coetzee's clinical assessment of his deed: "Immediately after the bomb I felt satisfied, but I was angry about the other bombs," he says, offering a skew smile. "All of us were racist. All of us believed in white supremacy. The race issue was based on our political beliefs."

Macingwane and Coetzee sit uncomfortably on the front line of South Africa's national psyche. Victim and perpetrator, reconciled through their extraordinary meeting, are asking to be taken seriously in a country still darkly cynical about truth and reconciliation.

To date the reaction from the government has been, at best, muted. On the one hand, the government has embraced Coetzee as the poster boy for a national programme of restorative justice which seeks to transcend the traditional "lock up and leave them" approach to criminal justice.

On the other, the Department of Correctional Services has ignored Coetzee's plea to be transferred to Worcester prison so he and his victims can contact or meet one another more easily.

Nobody knows what to do with him.

Coetzee's life is a window on a story of hate and confusion as old as human history. His bigoted views were common currency during a bare-knuckle upbringing, first in a Free State orphanage after being removed from his troubled parents, later in his mother's home, where he fell under the influence of right-wing relatives.

Social workers believe a deep-seated anger - still evident when he speaks about his family life - partly explains his swift rise through the right-wing hierarchy, where he gained notoriety on a par with extremists like Wit Wolf leader and mass killer Barend Strydom.

Disillusioned by South Africa's transition to democracy, Coetzee fell in with people who clothed their hatred in a form of religious fanaticism called Israel Vision. The group embarked on a bombing spree that culminated in the Worcester attack.

Besides the four people killed instantly in the supermarket, two died later due to medical complications. Victims included Samuel Jalile, 35, a builder, who had both his legs blown off, and Juanita April, 9, whose stomach was blown open and her body "cut to ribbons" by glass fragments.

Two boys, Andile and Xolani Matshoba, were killed after being sent back to the shops by their mother who had forgotten an item on her shopping list.

It is testimony to the complexity of the human spirit that Coetzee is now a key figure in a flagship restitution project in Worcester. Farmers, farm-workers, taxi drivers, bank managers and street sweepers have formed a committee to guide the process of trying to bridge the town's racial divide. The surviving 81 victims of the Christmas Eve bombing voted unanimously to get Coetzee transferred to the Worcester prison.

"We haven't heard anything from the department (of correctional services) about the transfer," says Deon Snyman, a former NG Kerk dominee who helped set up the Restitution Foundation. "People would very much like an easy way of forgiveness - and an easy way is not going to lead to enduring forgiveness."

Killers like Coetzee are important, Snyman says: the only way to see the heart of darkness is face to face. If South Africa is to defuse the hidden bombs still lurking beneath our constitutional democracy, Snyman and his co-workers will need all the help they can get from the handful of people who have made the journey back from hate.

Snyman says: "I think it would be a cathartic experience for as many as possible of the victims to meet him."

So the man who tried to rip Worcester apart may be the key to putting it back together.

Coetzee's apparent search for forgiveness began when he met one of apartheid's most notorious killers - police hit squad commander Eugene de Kock. According to reports, the man nicknamed "Prime Evil" had been responsible for getting Coetzee to re-examine - and finally reject - his belief in racial superiority.

Back in Pretoria, Coetzee's visitors watch him closely as he says: "I am very close to God now. By rejecting him, I learnt to love him. I pray a lot - every day I look for something good."

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