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Apartheid Victims Sue Western Banks And Firms For Billions

Published by MAC on 2002-06-16
Source: The Observer

Apartheid victims sue Western banks and firms for billions

Lawyer who championed those who suffered in the Holocaust fights for South Africa's oppressed

Terry Bell, The Observer

June 16, 2002

The American lawyer who won compensation for Holocaust victims is about to launch legal claims for billions of pounds against companies, many of them British, that benefited from apartheid.

The first action will be announced at a press conference tomorrow by Dorothy Molefi, mother of the most famous casualty of the 1976 Soweto student uprising, Hector Petersen, who at the age of 13 was the first student shot dead by police in 1976.

The photograph of his bloodstained body cradled in the arms of a friend, with his tearful sister running alongside, came to be the symbol of student resistance. Molefi arrived in Switzerland yesterday - the anniversary of the uprising - accompanied by her South African lawyer, John Ngcebetsha. She and other claimants will be represented by Ed Fagan, who won class-action victories on behalf of Holocaust victims.

First claims are against Swiss and German banks that continued to lend money to the apartheid regime after 1985 when other international lending institutions had decided to pull back.

Also in the firing line are British and American companies that invested in, and continued to profit from, the apartheid system. Some of the biggest names in international business have been targeted.

Computer giants IBM and ICL, oil companies Royal Dutch Shell, BP and Mobil, armaments manufacturer Vickers and Rolls-Royce were all involved in supplying equipment, investment and technology to a regime pursuing a policy deemed to be a crime against humanity.

Because of the international nature of business, Fagan's actions in the New York courts could have implications even for British companies such as BTR, which has the dubious distinction of having been the focus of South Africa's longest strike.

The essence of Fagan's cases is that the apartheid system was akin to that in Nazi Germany. He points out that the first Prime Minister under apartheid, Daniel Malan, supported the Axis powers in the Second World War. One of his successors, Hendrik Verwoerd, Prime Minister from 1958 to 1966, described as 'the architect of apartheid', had been found by the Johannesburg supreme court to be a Nazi sympathiser.

In 1943, Mr Justice Millin found that Verwoerd, an academic turned editor of Die Transvaler newspaper, 'did support Nazi propaganda, he did make his paper a tool of the Nazis in South Africa, and he knew it'.

According to Fagan, the regime that came into being on Africa's southern tip in 1948 was, therefore, linked ideologically with that of the then only recently defeated Nazi regime in Germany. Like that regime, it relied on money to lubricate the wheels and machinery of repression.

Quoting from the report of South Africa's post-apartheid Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Fagan said: 'Business was central to the economy that sustained the South African state during the apartheid years.' Business, he argued, was therefore liable to pay reparations to the victims for propping up the system.

As a result of the Nuremberg trials after Second World War, 'companies were put on notice', he said. They were told that they could be held accountable 'just as were the financial institutions and corporations that fuelled the Nazi regime' for acts that supported crimes against humanity.

'Incredible as it may seem, financial institutions and corporations or their agents - including many that had conspired with and made possible the Nazi regime's reign of terror - were willing, even anxious, to engage in the same type of business with apartheid South Africa,' he said. South Africa may not have had extermination camps, but the regime terrorised for decades a majority of the population through mass forced removals, arbitrary arrests and detentions, torture and officially sanctioned murder. It also deliberately set out to cripple, intellectually and academically, the majority of the population in a grotesque experiment in social engineering.

Business often enjoyed an almost symbiotic relationship with the military that sat astride this system of terror and subjugation. Leading business figures even attended meetings with senior military officers to exchange information and plan the most efficient means of maintaining the apartheid system.

As a consequence the majority of South Africans suffered incalculable harm that would not have been possible, and certainly not to the extent that it occurred, without the finance, the expertise, the trade and the commerce of international banks and corporations and their agents.

No figures have yet been put on the final amounts that may be claimed, but the claims will be based on the profits that accrued to the various companies over the time they benefited from the apartheid system.

In more than 40 years when that system was in place, the revenues generated amounted to billions of pounds. The court actions could also have some profound political implications. One of the initial class action claimants, along with Molefi is, for example, Sigqibo Mpendulo. A one-time anti-apartheid activist, Mpendulo was the father of twin 12-year-old boys, Samora and Sadat. They were gunned down by a death squad in their sleep in October 1993, together with three of their friends.

The boys died in a hail of automatic gunfire as they slept in front of the television set in the living room of the family home in the then nominally independent 'homeland' of Transkei. The man who authorised the death squad raid was President F.W. de Klerk who was, at the time, waiting to travel to Oslo to accept, jointly with Nelson Mandela, the 1993 Nobel peace prize.

Tomorrow, at the Hector Petersen memorial in Soweto, local lawyers and claimants will announce details of the local aspects of the cases. A national telephone call centre has been established through which more evidence will be gathered and more claimants added to a list which already includes some of the best-known names of anti-apartheid struggle.

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