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Archbishop Desmond Tutu's Truth and Reconciliation Commission, that brave effort by the new South Africa to come to terms with its past, is running into trouble.

The courts are cracking down on it for disregard of "due process." Quarrels are breaking out between it and the country's law officers. Families of some of the most famous martyrs of the anti-apartheid cause are fighting it with the determination that they once reserved for the country's racist oppressors.But, above all, it's in danger of falling victim to the subject on which it was the supposed authority: questions of morality.

The 17 worthies who make up the Truth Commission traveled Monday (May 20) to Rustenberg in the western Transvaal to begin the second phase of their investigations, with the first of the amnesty hearings at which perpetrators of human rights abuses were expected to "tell all" in exchange for indemnities against prosecution and civil litigation.

The commissioners have grounds for satisfaction with what they have achieved so far. The first phase of the inquiry - regional hearings of victims' accounts of atrocities - was an unashamed theatrical exercise which succeeded brilliantly.

Far from exhaustive, it nevertheless confronted the white population with the horrors of the apartheid era which had been obscured both by censorship under National Party rule and by a refusal, born of social conditioning, to acknowledge a shared humanity.

The hearings were particularly effective for the voice they gave to the "little people" whose simplicity of language brought home with almost brutal effect the depravities of the times.

But there was also testimony from the other side of apartheid's political divide which pointed to looming difficulties for the process of "truth and reconciliation."

It came from Cher and Sharon Gerrard, the sisters of a commercial artist, 28-year-old Marchelle Gerrard, who died in what is known as the Magoo's Bar bombing on Durban's beachfront in 1986.

They appeared before the commission to demand "justice" of the bomber, Robert McBride - "a cold-blooded murderer who can never wipe away the pain, sorrow, anguish and destruction he caused," as the young women put it.

White South Africa has something of an obsession with McBride and the bombing, because the fatalities - all women, one of them pregnant - were white.

The car bomb, aimed at a popular watering hole for security personnel, was clearly a murderously reckless act. But McBride paid a heavy price for it - including years waiting on Pretoria's death row before his eventual release in 1992 as part of the political settlement.

His conviction and sentence by the courts put McBride beyond any further legal action, and Tutu had brought the bombing before his Truth Commission as a gesture of even-handedness to the white population.

But it was a gesture which blew up in the commission's face. McBride - a man of considerable courage who enjoys heroic status in South Africa's black townships - has been tormented by the constant evocation of the bombing whenever the atrocities of apartheid are debated.

Last week McBride went on national television to answer his tormentors, and in the course of the interview he said that he had planted the bomb on orders from his African National Congress commanders.

The remark immediately raised a parallel between the culpability of McBride's commanders and that of the former minister of defense, Gen. Magnus Malan, and other retired military officers currently on trial in Durban for allegedly authorizing a police massacre of civilians in 1987.

The parallel wasn't lost on the chief prosecutor in the Malan case, KwaZulu-Natal Attorney-General, Tim McNally. To the consternation of the Truth Commissioners, he promptly announced he was preparing a prosecution against McBride's commanders.

McBride has refused to identify the people who gave him the orders, but McNally's office is believed to be gunning for the former commander-in-chief of the ANC's military wing, Joe Modise, ironically now Malan's successor at the Defense Ministry.

Another of the country's law officers has also been pursuing "the truths" of apartheid by conventional criminal prosecution in competition with Tutu and his commissioners. Transvaal Attorney-General Jan D'Oliveira has been quietly working to crack the "Third Force" - the political conspiracy involving police and army generals to abort South Africa's constitutional settlement by destabilising the country in the late 1980s and early 1990s.

He's been concentrating his efforts on the prosecution of Col. Eugene De Kock, the former commander of a police assassination squad who boasts of having been the apartheid state's most proficient killer.

D'Oliveira appears to have "turned" De Kock who is now traveling the country giving evidence against his former colleagues. He is to appear as a star witness in a pending prosecution of senior members of the Inkatha Freedom Party, which is expected to throw light on the involvement of Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi's Zulu-based organization in the Third Force.

D'Oliveira and McNally, as legal "professionals," show a degree of disdain for the archbishop and the "amateurs" f the Truth Commission. It is seemingly shared by others in the legal establishment concerned at what they see as the bumbling interference in the judicial process.

The Supreme Court has already slapped down the commission over its disregard of due process, by failing to allow alleged perpetrators of human rights abuses the opportunity to prepare their defense against publicly aired charges of atrocity.

A leading civil rights lawyer is expected to soon mount a challenge to the commission in the constitutional court on behalf of Steve Biko's family and others who are demanding that the murderers of their loved ones be subject to straightforward criminal prosecution.

Representatives of the commission, the attorneys-general and others in the legal establishment are expected to meet shortly to try to iron out their differences and thrash out a joint strategy.

It's highly unlikely that the commission, which has a constitutional mandate, will retreat from its investigatory role. Nevertheless, there must be a suspicion that it has already discharged the task for which it was best qualified.

(Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service.)