Holding corporations accountable for apartheid crimes

A landmark class action case is under way in a New York federal court, with victims of apartheid in South Africa suing corporations that they say helped the pre-1994 regime. Among the multinational corporations are IBM, Fujitsu, Ford, GM and banking giants UBS and Barclays. The lawsuit accuses the corporations of "knowing participation in and/or aiding and abetting of the crimes of apartheid; extrajudicial killing; torture; prolonged unlawful detention; and cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment." Attorneys are seeking up to $400 billion in damages.

The late anti-apartheid activist Dennis Brutus, who died just weeks ago, is a listed plaintiff. Back in 2008, he told me that "for [the corporations], apartheid was a very good system, and it was a very profitable system." As the U.S. observes the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.'s birthday, marks the first anniversary in office of the first African-American president, and ponders the exposure of a racial gaffe spoken by Sen. Harry Reid, the issue of race is front and centre, making this case timely and compelling.

The Alien Tort Statute dates from the U.S. Revolutionary War era and allows people from outside the United States to bring a civil suit against another party for alleged crimes committed outside the United States. Cases have been brought in recent years to address forced labour on an oil pipeline in Burma, the killing of labour organizers in Colombia and the killing of activists in the Niger delta. This suit alleges that the apartheid regime could not have succeeded in its violent oppression of millions of people without the active support of the foreign corporations.

Ford and General Motors built manufacturing centres in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where Dennis Brutus grew up. He told me, "They were using ... very cheap black labour, because there was a law in South Africa which said blacks are not allowed to join trade unions, and they're not allowed to strike, so that they were forced to accept whatever wages they were given. They lived in ghettos ... actually in the boxes in which the parts had been shipped from the U.S. to be assembled in South Africa. So you had a whole township called Kwaford, meaning 'the place of Ford.'"

Likewise with IBM and Fujitsu. The complaint states, "The South African security forces used computers supplied by ... IBM and Fujitsu ... to restrict Black people's movements within the country, to track non-whites and political dissidents, and to target individuals for the purpose of repressing the Black population and perpetuating the apartheid system." Black South Africans were issued passbooks, which the apartheid regime used to restrict movement and track millions of people, and to enable politically motivated arrests and disappearances over decades.

UBS and Barclays, the suit alleges, "directly financed the South African security forces that carried out the most brutal aspects of apartheid." The United Nations Special Committee Against Apartheid stated, in 1979, that "we learn today that more than $5.4 billion has been loaned in a six-year period to bolster a regime which is responsible for some of the most heinous crimes ever committed against humanity." Banks (including UBS) were punished for helping the Nazis during World War II, so precedent exists for reparations in the case of apartheid.

One of the plaintiffs' attorneys, Michael Hausfeld, told me: "Who is a corporation and what are its responsibilities? If companies can affect lives in ways that make those lives worse, so that people are suppressed or terrorized ... you are basically ascribing to eternity the fact that companies can act with both impunity and immunity."

South Africa went through a historic process after apartheid, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), led by Nobel Peace laureate Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Thousands of people took responsibility for their actions, along with scores of South African corporations. Not one multinational company accepted the invitation to speak at the TRC. The case, says Marjorie Jobson, national director of the Khulumani Support Group, which is filing the lawsuit, "takes forward the unfinished business of the TRC."

The election of Barack Obama, the son of an African, was a historic moment in the fight against racism. But unless U.S. courts are open to addressing wrongs, past and present, corporations will still feel free to go abroad and profit from racist and repressive policies.

Amy Goodman is the co-founder, executive producer and host of Democracy Now!, a national, daily, independent, award-winning news program airing on more than 450 public broadcast stations in North America.

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