South Africa's National Prosecuting Authority says it is ready to prosecute people who were refused or failed to apply to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission for amnesty for apartheid-era human rights crimes. While some apartheid leaders may be charged, thousands more who perpetrated gross human rights violations are unlikely to face justice.

About 5,400 applications for amnesty were denied by South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission at the end of its work in 2003. More than 7,000 applications were received.

It is not known how many people who could have applied, did not. But the National Prosecuting Authority is ready to prosecute just five people, with 15 more cases likely to follow.

The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was launched in late 1995 to deal with cases of gross human rights violations committed in pursuit of political goals during the last three decades of apartheid, which ended in 1994.

The work of the commission was divided in two - the first process entailed hearings into human rights violations, and the second was an amnesty process. There was no distinction drawn between acts committed to uphold apartheid or in the struggle against it. But the overwhelming number of cases heard by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, involved acts in support of apartheid.

The National Prosecuting Authority is tightlipped about which cases will be heard first, but there is widespread speculation they will involve some of the most notorious applicants turned down by the commission, such as former security policeman Gideon Nieuwoudt, who was involved in the murder of prominent activist Steve Biko and several others in the eastern Cape.

There is also speculation that charges might be brought against some apartheid leaders, such as former president P.W. Botha, under whose leadership some of the worst apartheid atrocities occurred. He set up a parallel system of government, known as Stratcom, which bypassed parliament and gave unprecedented power to a shadowy network of security and intelligence officers.

Nobel Peace laureate Desmond Tutu, who headed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, told VOA that the commission was a magnanimous initiative in pursuit of reconciliation, adding that it would be travesty of justice if apartheid leaders who failed to seek amnesty, now escaped prosecution.

"Nothing is more painful to [the victims] than to see people strutting around South Africa whom they know had violated their rights, whom they know were perpetrators of some of the most awful, most gruesome atrocities, seeing walking around, many of them living lives of opulence and the victims have got nothing really in exchange for their generosity and magnanimity," he said.

In approving the legal framework earlier this month, parliament noted that such apartheid-related prosecutions may become a feature of South African jurisprudence for the foreseeable future. But National Prosecuting Authority spokesman Makhosini Nkosi told VOA that it is unlikely that cases will be brought where there are no living witnesses, where the alleged perpetrator is very old or ill, or where evidence no longer exists.

"But having said that, essentially it will be about the availability of evidence and whether there are reasonable prospects of a successful prosecution," noted Nkosi. "If we do have such circumstances, then we would proceed definitely with prosecution."

And evidence may be hard to come by in hundreds, if not thousands, of cases. In the months prior to the end of apartheid, tons of documents were destroyed across the country by government agencies and departments, including the police and military.

And in addition to cases that cannot be successfully prosecuted, the National Prosecuting Authority has authority to decline prosecution where it considers the case might result in political instability, or whether it might cause victims or their surviving families additional suffering.

Some of these criteria are similar to those which governed the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, but spokesman Nkosi says that unlike cases decided by the commission, victims or family members are not prohibited from taking the case further if the Authority decides against prosecution.

"But in those cases, victims or families of victims, can in terms of our law, apply to national director of public prosecutions for a private prosecution, we will give them the right to conduct private prosecutions if they think they can succeed," he added. "Over and above that they can pursue civil claims. So its not only a question of criminal prosecutions, there are other remedies that victims or families of victims can pursue."

While the records of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission are in the public domain, the National Prosecuting Authority may not use them as evidence in prosecuting cases now. But Nkosi says that they can be used to guide current investigations.

Despite all of this, analysts suggest that fewer than 100 cases will be brought before the courts ... prompting some South Africans to comment that they can be no more than symbolic. But Archbishop Tutu, fondly known in South Africa as The Arch, told VOA symbolism can also be a powerful influence.

"Symbols are not things to sniff at, you know," he said. "As I say, if especially the big fish who did not come before the commission, or who escaped the other net, if some of those big fish can in fact be brought to book in an open process, then it will be I think, sufficient, and people will be aware that you could not do everything."

Archbishop Tutu says despite some shortcomings the overall Truth and Reconciliation process can be seen as a success and a key element in ensuring South Africa's peaceful transition during the past 11 years.