Two major lawsuits–filed in the United States against multinational corporations including GM, IBM and Citigroup for aiding and abetting apartheid–are at a critical juncture. Their outcomes could set legal standards by which corporations are held accountable for cooperating with regimes that violate human rights. This possibility has sent shock waves through international corporate boardrooms, which also fear court orders to release files that would expose apartheid-era activities.
The plaintiffs include a diversity of apartheid victims, including prominent author Dennis Brutus, who was shot in the back and imprisoned by the South African security police; Sigqibo Mpendulo, whose teenage sons were murdered in their living room by security police; and Dorothy Molefi, the mother of Hector Peterson, who was shot to death by police when he was 13 at the start of the Soweto uprising of 1976. The photo of his limp body in the arms of a friend has become an iconic image of the victims.
Ntombi Mosikare, who works for the Khulumani Support Group, a South African organization that is a lead plaintiff and represents apartheid victims, said, “Those that helped the apartheid government do its dirty work should be made to pay.”
US attorneys Diane Sammons and Ed Fagan were the first to file. Their suit includes employment discrimination claims and asks for unspecified monetary relief. Currently there are eight lead plaintiffs in the class-action suit, which could expand to millions of plaintiffs. Michael Hausfeld and Agnieszka Fryszman filed their lawsuit five months later, in November. It seeks unspecified individual damages on behalf of Khulumani itself and ninety-two of the 33,000 victims represented by Khulumani. Both suits include South African attorneys.
On May 19, a federal judge, John Sprizzo, of US District Court, Southern District of New York, a Reagan appointee, will for the first time make substantive rulings on the initial lawsuit (combined with a similar suit filed by Connecticut lawyers). On May 28, a federal judicial panel is expected to decide whether all the lawsuits should be consolidated.
The approximately thirty US and European defendants–some are in both lawsuits–include banks (e.g., Citigroup, JP Morgan Chase, UBS AG, Credit Suisse, Deutsche Bank, Barclays Bank), oil companies (Shell and ExxonMobil), vehicle manufacturers (Ford, DaimlerChrysler, GM) and technology companies (IBM and Unisys). The complaints claim that the banks provided the funding that kept the apartheid government in power; that without oil, the police and military could not have functioned and the economy would have collapsed; that vehicle manufacturers supplied military vehicles and that technology companies supplied the resources for the national identity system. Companies were targeted not simply for doing business with South Africa but for allegedly supporting the apartheid system and profiting from crimes against humanity.
Business heavyweights, including the US Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers and the National Foreign Trade Council, have backed up the corporations, criticizing the law on which the reparations suits are based. Known as the Alien Tort Claims Act, which dates from 1789, it grants US courts jurisdiction over certain violations of international law. This act formed the basis of Holocaust lawsuits, which were successfully argued by some of the lead lawyers in the South African cases.