CHARLAYNE HUNTER-GAULT: Part of South Africa's transition from a minority white government to majority black rule was the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission to investigate alleged atrocities committed during the apartheid era. Yesterday that commission announced that five former policemen had confessed to the 1977 killing of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko.
The 30-year-old Biko was found dead in his jail cell with severe head trauma and brain injury. A government inquest laid no blame. Biko had been one of South Africa's most influential black leaders, and his death has long been a mystery and source of rumors. The policemen who admitted to the killing have petitioned the commission for amnesty, adding fuel to a simmering debate that we will join after this report from Jane Bennett Powell of Independent Television News.
JANE BENNETT POWELL: Biko's death at 30 ended his non-violent campaign for equality for black South Africans.
STEVE BIKO: (1977) Both people will have the same status before the law, and they will have the same rights before the law. So in a sense it will be a completely non-racial egalitarian society.
JANE BENNETT POWELL: The Truth and Reconciliation Commission under Desmond Tutu is charged with finding out what happened under apartheid, and the commission believes that the former policemen who've now come forward to shed light on nine other killings, as well as Biko's, were encouraged by the chance of amnesty. The hope was expressed that new information could be exposed.
DUMISA NTSEBEZA, Truth Commission Investigator: Amnesty applications have been filed by a number of former security policemen, indicated that they are applying for amnesty in respect of charges of assault and culpable homicide.
ALEX BORAINE, Deputy Chief, Truth Commission: Their example I hope will encourage many more throughout South Africa from the highest level to the command structures to come forward and to tell the truth so that we can move towards healing and reconciliation.
JANE BENNETT POWELL: But the former officers, one of whom has been giving evidence at the commission in another case, may not be able to point the finger at culpable superiors.
DONALD WOODS, Former Editor, "Daily Dispatch:" The three main superiors are dead, and that was Col. Hausen, plus the minister of police, plus the prime minister Foster at the time. One of the evils of the system was that fairly ordinary officers of the security police were given such total control over political prisoners and the right to treat them as they liked.
JANE BENNETT POWELL: The five officers' lawyer appealed for understanding; that they committed crimes in the name of apartheid to protect the system, and that they've now been ostracized by the people they'd served. The commission, with the prospect of such high profile amnesty applications, is likely to hear them sooner, rather than later. But pardon isn't automatic.
DONALD WOODS: It depends very much on the extent and the spirit of the confessions and the demeanor of the people, but it's encouraging to think that after all these years we might get the truth at last.
JANE BENNETT POWELL: Steve Biko's widow, who's visited the prison in Pretoria where here husband was held, opposes the concept of pardon for her husband's attackers. He went on hunger strike in his cell in 1977 and his injuries pointed to torture. At the time officials said he beat his own head against a wall. In 1995, she said the only just course was a trial of those accused.
NITSIKI BIKO, Widow: (1995) I've always wanted to see them, you know, brought to justice, to court, and be charged for it and sentenced for it.
JANE BENNETT POWELL: And a close friend voiced his opposition on behalf of the nine other victims' families.
ITUMELENG MOSALA, Biko Family Friend: We believe that they should not be offered any amnesty. They should rather subject themselves to the process of the justice system.
JANE BENNETT POWELL: This latest move is one more step towards healing South Africa's painful past, but it's controversial, and some people will continue to think the knowledge of what went on then, if paid for with pardons, is bought at too high a price.