By Fazila Farouk · 29 Nov 2008
Although important work is carried out in this field, we certainly don't hear enough about holding corporations accountable for the profits they pocketed during South Africa's apartheid years.
The focus of South Africa's negotiated democracy has been finding unity in forgiveness. This is important for a country looking forward and trying to construct a civilised society, but it comes with a cost.
This cost is a lack of acknowledgement for the ongoing suffering of South Africans whose human rights were violated by both the apartheid state and its corporate companions. To this day, victims continue to wear the yoke of economic marginalisation.
Of significance is the orientation of the post-apartheid government towards perpetrators of apartheid crimes. To ensure a peaceful future free of vengeance, forgiving perpetrators is given far more importance than seeking redress for victims of apartheid.
Shameless companies that strategically exploited apartheid laws for corporate gain are exploiting this situation too. Corporate South Africa is quietly getting on with its affairs without even as much as an apology to its victims.
Marjorie Jobson, director of the Khulumani Support Group, an organisation that provides support to victims of apartheid says, "South African businesses have gotten away with a blanket amnesty. They refuse to have anything to do with reparations."
Many companies are simply in denial about the long-term implications of their actions during the apartheid years and beyond, for victims of apartheid. Somewhat absurdly, corporations are getting away with conflating reparations and corporate social investment. This, of course, puts a more positive spin on their shameful deeds of the past.
Jobson's organisation, Khulumani is representing, amongst others, workers who were unfairly dismissed by Sasol for engaging in strike action. This is the same Sasol that was recently fined 318.2 million Euros (7.3 billion Rand) by the European Commission for anti-competitive behaviour. Sasol's disgraceful behaviour goes back decades.
On 01 October 1987, Sasol called in the South African riot police to disperse striking workers. On that day and in the days that followed, 77 workers were killed (more than the number of people killed in the Sharpeville massacre). In addition, 2000 workers were unfairly dismissed.
It's been 21 years since that fateful event. Despite its tight relationship with the apartheid state, Sasol has never taken responsibility for these deaths and dismissals. Its victims still seek redress.
Many of the dismissed workers had service records spanning two to three decades. Their dismissals also resulted in their blacklisting -- they have never been able to secure new jobs. The widows of those killed have never been compensated.
The emotional, psychological and economic onslaught on their lives has been onerous, yet the ex-Sasol workers have persevered for years, holding regular meetings, every Sunday for twenty years, and trying to engage Sasol on the matter.
They were finally given an audience with Sasol in May 2006, when together with Khulumani, nine representatives of the ex-Sasol workers met some from the company's management. Sasol refused to engage with the language of reparations, instead pressing for a more conciliatory frame of reference. Sasol requested a proposal from Khulumani not for reparations, but for a more constructive plan on community investment. Despite the obvious insult to the ex-Sasol workers, Khulumani submitted this proposal a month later, in June 2006.
Two and a half years later, as 2008 draws to a close, despite numerous calls to the company, a demonstration outside its offices as well as a second meeting with its management, the matter remains unresolved.
On 30 October 2008, about a month ago, the ex-Sasol workers took their struggle to government and orchestrated a sit-in at the offices of the National Department of Minerals and Energy (DME), which received a large dossier from the group. The DME promised a response in ten days. This response did indeed materialise ten days later after the DME was reminded thereof by Khulumani. But it is a response that smacks of disregard and condescension. The DME has presented Khulumani with a flimsy faxed letter acknowledging receipt of the dossier and saying that the department will respond further in due course.
Key to resolving the above and similar cases is the attitude of the South African government towards dealing with apartheid crimes. Opting for reconciliation rather than redress, South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) contrasts sharply with the approach of the Nuremburg Trials and its resultant prosecution of Nazis and Nazi sympathisers after World War II.
There simply is no sense of justice in the manner that the South African government has chosen to deal with apartheid crimes. It’s a debate that crops up in a book edited by Roy Lavon Brooks, "When Sorry Isn't Enough: The Controversy Over Apologies and Reparations for Human Injustice", which takes a rights-based perspective on the matter. Why does South Africa deem it necessary to grant amnesty to whites who tortured and murdered blacks under apartheid? – asks the book.
However, getting back to corporate complicity, when Barclays Bank operated in apartheid South Africa, it even went as far as issuing "secret credit cards" to agents of the apartheid state. One can’t be more explicit about one’s support for a system than that. Yet, this bank and many other international companies that aided and abetted the apartheid state have been allowed to walk away from their crimes without consequence by the democratic South African government.
These companies take comfort in the protective and brotherly arms of the democratic South African government, even as civil society groups try to hold them accountable for their misdeeds.
Since 2002, Khulumani and other civil society groups have been involved in the well-known Apartheid Lawsuit against international companies that aided and abetted the apartheid state. The case is being tried in an American court because of America’s Alien Torts Claims Act, which allows foreigners to bring cases against American companies for international violations.
Among the defendants are Barclays National Bank Ltd, Daimler AG, Ford Motor Company, Fujitsu Ltd, General Motors Corporation, international Business Machines Corporation, Oerlikon Contraves AG, Rheinmetall Group, and Union Bank of Switzerland AG.
The manner in which this case too has proceeded, has been nothing short of an affront to justice. The companies, of course, appealed against the lawsuit, while the South African government cowardly distanced itself from the case claiming that it undermined foreign direct investment. The appeal as well as the attitude and interventions of the democratic South African government in this matter, has contributed to years of delay in bringing the case to trial.
The facts of the apartheid lawsuit will eventually be heard after six long years. Finally, after losing their appeal in May this year, the defendants in the apartheid lawsuit will be forced to face some of their victims in court.
After submitting a revised claim on 31 October 2008, and giving the defendants six weeks to respond, claimants and defendants in the Apartheid Lawsuit are expected to be back in court on 12 December 2008 where a timetable for the jury trial will be announced.
As Jobson put it, the struggle continues.
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The issues in this article connect with the issues raised in Saliem Fakir's article in this same newsletter. It matters not who is in political power the chains that bind those with economic power to those with political power are virtually unbreakable.