S Africa Backs Action in US on Firms Linked to Apartheid
South African victims of apartheid seeking compensation from foreign multinationals which supported the racist regime have been boosted by their newly elected government's decision to support their class action in the US courts.
The position being taken by President Jacob Zuma's African National Congress (ANC) administration is the polar opposite of the one taken by his elected predecessor, Thabo Mbeki, whose government refused to support its citizens' case.
Mr Mbeki was against South Africans suing the multinationals, which include, IBM, Daimler, Ford and General Motors, because the action could ultimately harm the country, which still has strong economic ties with many of the companies and wants them to increase investment.
The presiding judge of the US District Court where the case will be heard has received written confirmation regarding Mr Zuma's decision to take a different stance to that of his predecessor.
The South African government has also said it believes an out-of-court settlement would be the best way forward for all concerned.
The plaintiffs in the legal action, which is being taken in the US using the Alien Tort Claims Act, say the firms directly supported the apartheid system by selling vehicles, computers, weapons and other items to the regime that were used against the people.
In recent years the Alien Torts Claims Act has been used by non-US citizens against US-based companies which they say have been complicit in crimes overseas.
Khulumani, an apartheid victim's support group representing thousands of South Africans in the case, welcomed the government's about-turn. "This represents a very significant shift from the government's 2003 position that is not and will not be party to litigation against companies that did business with and in South Africa during the apartheid period," Khulumani said.
The apartheid victims' action was originally taken in 2002 against a large group of companies, but the US courts initially dismissed it.
However, the case was revived on appeal, though the number of companies being sued was greatly reduced.
International banks operating in South Africa during apartheid which were on the original target list were let off the hook because no direct link could be made between their business dealings and the regime's oppression.
However, the case against car manufacturers and computer companies has been allowed to proceed because their products could have been used to directly oppress the population.