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Holding Corporations Accountable for Apartheid Crimes

Posted on Jan 12, 2010
Background: Suburbanbloke (CC-BY-SA)

By Amy Goodman

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.


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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.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.
Amy Goodman is the host of “Democracy Now!,” a daily international TV/radio news hour airing on more than 800 stations in North America. She is the author of “Breaking the Sound Barrier,” recently released in paperback and now a New York Times best-seller.

© 2010 Amy Goodman

Distributed by King Features Syndicate

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By M. Möhling, January 24, 2010 at 2:49 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

How about a United Nations Special Committee on the continuing crucial support of ZA gov to Mugabe’s administration, with a toll of tens of thousand lives so far, and people killed on a daily basis, like, just now? Any input by messrs Tutu and Mandela? Or are they busy bringing Zuma his machine gun? Or wait, they’re occupied fighting AIDS with showers and vitamins. First things first.

Here’s “Death Toll From Humanitarian Disaster Reaches Genocidal Levels”

“At the same time, up to 5 million people are said to be already starving, amid more speculation that between 15 and 20 thousand people are dying from starvation and hunger related diseases a month. A recent media report quoted a nurse from the Beatrice Infectious Diseases Hospital, who said an average of 13 people a day die there, with the nurse explaining that most patients had clear signs of malnutrition.”

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By Inherit The Wind, January 19, 2010 at 5:11 am Link to this comment

I don’t see simple answers in SA. It’s not just Black/White—there are different ethnicities, some with antipathy going back hundreds of years.  Zulu, Xhosa, Hottentot, San, Indian, English, Afrikaner, German, just to name a few.  And now, the influx of Zimbabweans has created new pressures, both economic and tribal.

But what WILL these lawsuits accomplish?  Ford re-invented itself in S/A, and how it does business there.  So did IBM.  Are they doing it “wrong” now?
Again, I don’t have the answers—I’m not an expert on South African history or race relations.  It all seemed so simple in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, but now it doesn’t.

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By Michaelt, January 18, 2010 at 7:08 pm Link to this comment

Mike, What do you mean by saying the ANC is supporting genocide of the white population? That’s a remarkable claim and I would be interested to know how you substantiate it.

As anyone who lives in South Africa will know, there are problems with BEE, as there are with any programmes designed to achieve equality. South Africa is a country with unique problems and the government has to address these. What choice do they have with a black population comprising 80% of the population?

‘This lawsuit is another case of liberal lunacy and parasitic 3rd world opportunism. Get real! I hope its thrown out’. Are you saying corporations have the right to act with impunity with regards to the way they disregard the rights of the vulnerable in developing countries? How do you think you would feel if a corporation had caused the death or suffering of a member of your family?

Thanks for contributing and best regards!

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By Inherit The Wind, January 17, 2010 at 6:50 am Link to this comment

I don’t have the answers. 
I do know that when Robert Mugabe decided that the White land-owners should be relieved of their land (and, frequently, their lives at the same time) so it could be “redistributed” he turned Zimbabwe from a bread-basket into a carrion-heaped desert where only the buzzards thrive.

I do know that when your truly heroic Nelson Mandela was given power, he understood that a massive retribution and tearing down what has been built will only make the masses suffer far more than it will make the corporations suffer.

I’m no defender of the corporations. I just don’t see how these suits will get anywhere.  Look how many decades it took just to get the tobacco companies.  The results? They hide their research designed to hook young people and make cigs more addictive under even deeper secrecy.  Plus they used hundreds of millions of dollars to fight EVERY piece of legislation every time, and to defeat anti-tobacco candidates in the tobacco states.

The result? Cigarette smoking is down a little, despite all the anti-smoking laws but the PRICE of a pack is insane.  And the tobacco industry is nothing more than a legal drug cartel, like the cocaine and heroin dealers.

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By Tom Lauer, January 17, 2010 at 3:23 am Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Ms. Goodman;s remark about Harry Reid is as racist as his, as reported. If any reference to race is suddenly termed racist we just as suddenly need a new word to designate real racism. I peruse this rag up to now and no further. Do not bother me again.

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By Mike, January 16, 2010 at 2:33 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Should the current black ANC government in SA be sued for allowing and supporting discrimination (BEE) and genocide of the white population..??

This lawsuit is another case of liberal lunacy and parasitic 3rd world opportunism. Get real! I hope its thrown out.

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By Michaelt, January 15, 2010 at 9:10 pm Link to this comment

Just a further note, Naomi Klein’s book offers great insight into this.

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By Michaelt, January 15, 2010 at 8:58 pm Link to this comment

Inherit the Wind, I am a South African and used to believe exactly what you are saying until I developed a better understanding of how corporations operate.

In vulnerable economies, usually in developing countries, there are always the same threats made that if lawsuits are brought against corporations for their actions, which regularly exploit poor people and abuse their human rights, they will leave these countries and the exploited workers will be worse off. This is ridiculous; if corporations did this where would they go? Back to Europe, America or Japan where they would not be able to get away with the same practices? These are empty threats made by the people in these corporations who make billions by taking advantage of helpless people. Furthermore, the profits these corporations make do not benefit the people being exploited; they are repatriated back to the developed countries to enrich the various stakeholders there.

Corporations should be held accountable if they abuse human rights and they should compensate the people who suffered because of their actions. Apartheid remains one of the great crimes against humanity and whose legacy we are living in South Africa today. What is sickening is that most corporations have not taken any responsibility to address the desperate poverty in that country, which is why I hope the lawsuits will succeed.

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By Inherit The Wind, January 14, 2010 at 8:24 pm Link to this comment

kerryrose, January 14 at 3:38 pm #

Inherit the Wind

Your remarks are ridiculous.

If corporations get nailed, they will be less likely to leave the USA for cheaper pastures, and trample human rights.

Please tell me which of my remarks are ridiculous.

If South Africans sue these corporations, and the suit gets anywhere, why would they NOT hold of the South African economy for ransom to force the suit to be dropped?

It’s not that I think they are moral corporations—just the opposite. And a moral person has trouble thinking like an immoral person and all the ways they can think of to force and blackmail to get what they want.

Oh, I have a heart.  I would HATE to see tens of thousands of South African workers lose their jobs.  Do you KNOW what losing 7.5% of their GDP would do to that nation?  And that’s just the auto industry!

The crazy thing is that even during the worst of Apartheid, Black South Africans were economically far better off than most of the other Sub-Saharan nations.  Because the deals these companies cut for cheap labor brought in jobs beyond the gold mines and diamond fields and vineyards.

Think I’m crazy?  The Chinese government has done EXACTLY THE SAME THING over the last 30 years.  And China is now the dominant economic power in the world, passing the USA.  (Since Ronald Reagan, Bush 41, Clinton and Bush 43 gave it all away to them).

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By kerryrose, January 14, 2010 at 11:38 am Link to this comment

Inherit the Wind

Your remarks are ridiculous.

If corporations get nailed, they will be less likely to leave the USA for cheaper pastures, and trample human rights.

Get a heart.

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By kerryrose, January 14, 2010 at 11:35 am Link to this comment

Everyone can blah, blah, blah, here…

But, oh god, I hope the corporations get nailed.

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By RBShea, January 14, 2010 at 5:26 am Link to this comment

Inherit the Wind raises some good questions.
But they reflect an assumption that the success of the lawsuit is determined solely
by some form of judgement for the plaintiffs.
While that might happen, there is great value in bringing to light the involvement
of corporations with oppressive regimes and human rights violators. Such
corporate amorality, often with government support, is not new. One only has to
look to World War II for other examples such as the Bank of International
Settlements work with the Nazis. Or the handshake of Donald Rumsfeld and
Saddam Hussein during the Iraq-Iran war.
For Americans in particular, the lack of knowledge of how corporate behaviors can
enable horrendous regimes is a gap worth filling. Think of it as a kind of “Truth
Commission” for non-South Africans.

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By Inherit The Wind, January 13, 2010 at 9:07 pm Link to this comment

While everyone’s pouring gas on the fire here are some really serious questions:
1) Isn’t there a statute of limitations on civil suits? Apartheid fell in 1994—that’s 16 years ago and most statutes on law suits usually have a maximum of 10 years.
2) Are any of these companies still operating in South Africa?
3) What would be the consequence to their economy if these companies simply closed their operations, fired everyone there, and pulled out?  The automotive sector represents 7.5% of South Africa’s CURRENT GDP.
4) Ford Motor divested its S/A holdings in 1988 and didn’t re-purchase a stake until 1994, when Apartheid ended.
5) Just how many people does IBM employ in S/A?

If justice is delivered and this suit is successful, exactly who will be hurt? Who will suffer the most?

Apartheid was a terrible thing—but what good is this going to do?

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By WeAreWideAwake, January 13, 2010 at 4:54 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

In a recent UN report, Haaretz columnist Danny Rubinstein admitted that “Israel today was an apartheid State.”

US manufactured Caterpillar and Motorola equipment were used by the Israeli military during its Dec/Jan assault on the occupied Gaza Strip.

American made Caterpillar bulldozers demolished the civilian infrastructure throughout the Gaza Strip.

The United States directly supported Israel’s deadly assault on the Gaza Strip for Israel used weapons paid for and supplied by the United States during “Operation Cast Lead.”

U.S. F- 16s, hellfire missiles, and ammunition used by the Israeli military devastated the Gaza Strip for 22 days and U.S.A. corporations also directly profited from “Operation Cast Lead.”



Amnesty International and the U.N. Fact Finding Mission on the Gaza Conflict/The Goldstone Report documented that Motorola components were also used in the bombs that Israel dropped. Human Rights Watch reported that shrapnel with Motorola serial numbers were found at the site of bombed civilian infrastructures in Gaza City.


Israel’s attack on the people of Gaza was enabled by US-supplied weapons and we the people of the US who pay taxes provide over $30 billion annually to Israel although Israel has consistently misused U.S. weapons in violation of America’s Arms Export Control and Foreign Assistance Acts.

America is the worlds largest arms supplier to Israel and under a Bush negotiated deal with Israel, we the people who pay taxes in America will also provide another $30 billion in military aid to Israel over the next decade.

During Israeli assault on Gaza, “Washington provided F-16 fighter planes, Apache helicopters, tactical missiles, and a wide array of munitions, including white phosphorus and DIME. The weapons required for the Israeli assault was decided upon in June 2008, and the transfer of 1,000 bunker-buster GPS-guided Small Diameter Guided Bomb Units 39 (GBU-39) were approved by Congress in September. The GBU 39 bombs were delivered to Israel in November (prior to any claims of Hamas cease fire violation!) for use in the initial air raids on Gaza. [1]

“Rain of Fire: Israel’s Unlawful Use of White Phosphorus in Gaza,” provides eye witness accounts of the devastating effects that white phosphorus munitions had on civilians and civilian property in Gaza.

“Human Rights Watch researchers found spent shells, canister liners, and dozens of burnt felt wedges containing white phosphorus on city streets, apartment roofs, residential courtyards, and at a United Nations school in Gaza immediately after hostilities ended in January.

“Militaries officially use white phosphorus to obscure their operations on the ground by creating thick smoke. It has also been used as an incendiary weapon, though such use constitutes a war crime.

“In Gaza, the Israeli military didn’t just use white phosphorus in open areas as a screen for its troops,” said Fred Abrahams, senior emergencies researcher at Human Rights Watch and co-author of the report.

“It fired white phosphorus repeatedly over densely populated areas, even when its troops weren’t in the area and safer smoke shells were available. As a result, civilians needlessly suffered and died.”

During the attack on Gaza, the UN Security Council, Amnesty International, International Red Cross, and global voices of protest rose up and demanded a ceasefire, but both houses of Congress overwhelmingly endorsed to support a continuation of Israel’s so called “self defense.”



Excerpted from:

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By john from ojai, January 13, 2010 at 12:39 pm Link to this comment
(Unregistered commenter)

Success in this case can lay the groundwork for similar lawsuits against corporations benefiting from Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestine and illegal, war crime blockade against Gaza. South Africans who were involved with BDS, will be touring the U.S.this year to encourage the movement to boyott, divest, and sanction Israel and the corporate profiteers. Motorola,Caterpillar,and many military supplying corporations should all be held responsible for supplying product that kills innocent civilians.

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By FRTothus, January 13, 2010 at 8:43 am Link to this comment

Corporate accountability?  These are mutually exclusive ideas.

“When do corporations begin to lose their credibility? They fought Social Security, Medicare, auto safety. They fought every social justice movement in this country.”
(Ralph Nader)

“Few trends could so thoroughly undermine the very foundations of our free society as the acceptance by corporate officials of a social responsibility other than to make as much money for their stockholders as possible.”
(Milton Friedman)

“What would have happened if millions of American and British people, struggling with coupons and lines at the gas stations, had learned that in 1942 Standard Oil of New Jersey [part of the Rockefeller empire] managers shipped the enemy’s fuel through neutral Switzerland and that the enemy was shipping Allied fuel? Suppose the public had discovered that the Chase Bank in Nazi-occupied Paris after Pearl Harbor was doing millions of dollars’ worth of business with the enemy with the full knowledge of the head office in Manhattan [the Rockefeller family among others?] Or that Ford trucks were being built for the German occupation troops in France with authorization from Dearborn, Michigan? Or that Colonel Sosthenes Behn, the head of the international American telephone conglomerate ITT, flew from New York to Madrid to Berne during the war to help improve Hitler’s communications systems and improve the robot bombs that devastated London? Or that ITT built the FockeWulfs that dropped bombs on British and American troops? Or that crucial ball bearings were shipped to Nazi-associated customers in Latin America with the collusion of the vice-chairman of the U.S. War Production Board in partnership with Goering’s cousin in Philadelphia when American forces were desperately short of them? Or that such arrangements were known about in Washington and either sanctioned or deliberately ignored?”
(Charles Higham)

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By RBShea, January 13, 2010 at 6:50 am Link to this comment

So if US corporations have “person” status e.g. can fund elections, etc., they should
be held accountable for their actions the same way. But that won’t happen. And
when is there going to be a lawsuit or other public vetting about Israel’s role in
enabling the apartheid regime to acquire nuclear weapons?

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By Trailing Begonia, January 13, 2010 at 6:48 am Link to this comment

I can’t wait till Cartepillar, Lockheed Martin, Raytheon and the rest of the croonies can be brought up on similar charges by the people of Palestine.

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By KISS, January 13, 2010 at 5:58 am Link to this comment

Time for our corporate owned congress to create a law giving exemptions to mass murdering corporations for their ill deeds. But than Amerikan’s don’t really give a shit, they’ll vote the incumbents back in.

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