South Africa and the United Nations on Friday cleared the way for thousands of South Africans who fled apartheid to return home.
Douglas Stafford, deputy U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees, and Pretoria's ambassador to Geneva, Leslie Manley, initialed an agreement granting an amnesty for political crimes to an estimated 40,000 exiles.
"This agreement marks the beginning of the end of a 30-year-long human tragedy," U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees Sadako Ogata said in a statement from Japan. "For South Africa, it is a giant step toward the construction of a society where all South Africans enjoy basic human rights."
Nelson Mandela's African National Congress had listed an amnesty as one of its conditions for starting talks on a non-racial constitution with the government.
The agreement will allow political refugees covered by the amnesty to return to South Africa without fear of prosecution for offenses committed before or during their exile, according to Nicolas Bwakira, who is in charge of African affairs at the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. He said the amnesty only applied to those who left the country before Oct. 8, 1990.
He said that political detainees held in South African prisons will not be covered, as they did not fall under the mandate of the U.N. refugee agency. The amnesty also excludes common-law criminals.
In South Africa, Foreign Minister Roelof F. (Pik) Botha told a press conference that his government must approve applications from exiles wishing to return.
He said the U.N. refugee agency will be allowed to set up an office for 12 months to help repatriate exiles and raise money to pay for the process.
It will be the first time in 30 years that the United Nations will have a presence in the country. Like other members of the international community, it shunned South Africa to protest apartheid.
ANC information director Pallo Jordan gave the amnesty a guarded welcome, saying obstacles remain to power-sharing talks with the government.
"It makes a change and is all for the better," he told the Visnews television news agency in Johannesburg. "But the government still has to deliver on other undertakings it has made."
Once South Africa's new amnesty deal is formally approved, any exile wishing to return must apply to the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees. The application will be forwarded to the South African government, which retains the right to decide who qualifies for a pardon and who does not. The UNHCR will be allowed to help with appeals for those denied amnesty. The U.N. agency plans to send representatives to the country in 10 to 15 days to try to ensure that returnees are not mistreated. It will also appeal for $35 million to $40 million to help repatriate the exiles. Several governments pledged to contribute, and the UNHCR intends to ask South Africa for money.