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 center, 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 labor on an oil pipeline in Burma, the killing
of labor 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 centers in Port Elizabeth, South Africa, where Dennis
Brutus grew up. He told me, "They were using ... very cheap black
labor, 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

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.

Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.

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