Holding corporations accountable for apartheid crimes

Please chip in to support more articles like this. Support rabble.ca in its summer fundraiser today for as little as $1 per month!

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.

You can help make a difference -- please donate to rabble.ca and be part of the community that keeps rabble.ca going strong.

Related Items

Thank you for reading this story…

More people are reading rabble.ca than ever and unlike many news organizations, we have never put up a paywall – at rabble we’ve always believed in making our reporting and analysis free to all, while striving to make it sustainable as well. Media isn’t free to produce. rabble’s total budget is likely less than what big corporate media spend on photocopying (we kid you not!) and we do not have any major foundation, sponsor or angel investor. Our main supporters are people and organizations -- like you. This is why we need your help. You are what keep us sustainable.

rabble.ca has staked its existence on you. We live or die on community support -- your support! We get hundreds of thousands of visitors and we believe in them. We believe in you. We believe people will put in what they can for the greater good. We call that sustainable.

So what is the easy answer for us? Depend on a community of visitors who care passionately about media that amplifies the voices of people struggling for change and justice. It really is that simple. When the people who visit rabble care enough to contribute a bit then it works for everyone.

And so we’re asking you if you could make a donation, right now, to help us carry forward on our mission. Make a donation today.


We welcome your comments! rabble.ca embraces a pro-human rights, pro-feminist, anti-racist, queer-positive, anti-imperialist and pro-labour stance, and encourages discussions which develop progressive thought. Our full comment policy can be found here. Learn more about Disqus on rabble.ca and your privacy here. Please keep in mind:


  • Tell the truth and avoid rumours.
  • Add context and background.
  • Report typos and logical fallacies.
  • Be respectful.
  • Respect copyright - link to articles.
  • Stay focused. Bring in-depth commentary to our discussion forum, babble.


  • Use oppressive/offensive language.
  • Libel or defame.
  • Bully or troll.
  • Post spam.
  • Engage trolls. Flag suspect activity instead.