Bomb Threat Disrupts Hearings

EAST LONDON, South Africa -- A bomb threat disrupted historic hearings Monday aimed at digging up the secrets and healing the wounds of the killings, torture and disappearances of apartheid-era South Africa.


An hour after opening the hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission with a prayer, Archbishop Desmond Tutu halted testimony and informed a packed auditorium that a bomb threat had been phoned in and police would conduct a security sweep.


"This is one of the kinds of things we will have to deal with," Tutu apologized. "It makes all of us aware that there are some people who will stop at nothing to prevent this commission from doing its work."


Tutu, who clearly regarded the threat as a hoax, noted that police had thoroughly searched the building before the hearings. Most of the crowd eventually shifted to another room for drinks and food as two police dogs sniffed the chamber for bombs.


Police Senior Superintendent Rene Hackart told reporters that threats had been phoned to police and one to a newspaper. The callers appeared to be different people.


Tutu told police he wanted a 24-hour guard on the building to ensure security: "Otherwise, we are going to keep allowing this to happen. I will not allow further interruptions."


The hearings and live television coverage recommenced about 45 minutes after they stopped.


Seven witnesses were scheduled to testify Monday, mostly relatives of anti-apartheid activists who were reported missing or were allegedly killed by the security forces.


Nohle Mohapi, a former secretary to slain anti-apartheid hero Steve Biko, took the stand first. She testified about the death of her husband, Mapetla, whom police harassed for his leading role in a black students' organization.


The testimony coincided with the 20th anniversary of Mohapi's death in police custody. An official inquest at the time ruled he had hanged himself with a pair of jeans.


"I have never been happy during the past 20 years," said Nohle Mohapi. "After I heard about these hearings I wanted to come and give evidence to find out what happened to him, because he never killed himself."


Before the hearing started, a staff member brought in two large plastic bags stuffed with tissues to give people who wept.


The governing African National Congress issued a statement urging all South Africans to support the commission. But the ANC's chief black rival, the Zulu nationalist Inkatha Freedom Party, announced a boycott.


Inkatha leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi said the commission would not be impartial in uncovering facts of the ANC-Inkatha fighting that has killed thousands over the past decade.


President Nelson Mandela says the hearings are essential to the reconciliation he has preached since white-minority rule ended in 1994.