Four South Africans are seeking US $50 billion in reparations from United States and Swiss banks and companies who they allege profited from doing business with the apartheid government.
Apartheid was declared a crime against humanity by the United Nations (UN) as it institutionalised racism and subjected black South Africans to severe human rights abuses.
The plaintiffs allege the companies profited from loans to the then government of white nationalists, between 1985 and 1993, while a UN embargo was in place and helped prop up apartheid.
The family of 13-year-old Hector Petersen, who was killed by police during the Soweto uprising of 16 June 1976 and became a martyr of the struggle against apartheid, is one of the plaintiffs. The others are Sigqibo Mpendulo whose twin 12-year-old sons were killed during a police raid; Lungisile Ntsebeza, who was detained tortured and banished; and Themba Makubela who was banished from South Africa.
A member of the team that helped instigate the civil action, Jubilee 2000 spokesman and convener of the apartheid debt and reparations campaign, Neville Gabriel, told IRIN: “This is the first of a number of cases we will file. In this case we have four complainants representing two broad categories.
“Two of the complainants have been tortured themselves while the other two are the family members of people who were killed, whose children were killed. There will be other victim groups who will file claims with other lawyers as well, it’s all part of the broad campaign [and these cases also] will be against both banks and private businesses.”
He said the list of complainants or plaintiffs was likely to grow. While decisions on how to disburse whatever reparations were won, would include broader social reconstruction initiatives.
Gabriel said: “Our thinking at the moment, of course it will be determined by the legal process, but our thinking is that reparations payments could be made to either one or a couple of funds that will be responsible for disbursements, in two ways.
“One would be for individual payments to victims of human rights violations. Another, more importantly, would be for broad social programmes for reconstruction and development.”
The claims of the plaintiffs would remain separate. “The [legal] process may require that they be joined up later on but at this stage they will be different claims. Further claims will be brought shortly,” he said.
The lawyer representing the plaintiffs is Ed Fagan who helped to force Swiss banks into paying about US $1.25 billion for Holocaust victims. Claims may also be brought by individuals or organisations outside of South Africa.
“The present claims are specifically South African but the whole Southern African region faced direct destabilisation and destruction as a result of apartheid. Our research estimates the cost to be US $78 billion, the whole region has apartheid-caused debt that should be cancelled … as a form of reparations for the region,” Gabriel said.
Gabriel pointed out that in 1987 the UN had set up a group of three in terms of a resolution by the commission on human rights regarding transnational corporations supporting apartheid.
The group concluded that transnational corporations that did business with the apartheid regime “must be considered accomplices in the crime of apartheid and must be prosecuted in their responsibility in the continuation of that crime”.
UN Integrated Regional Information Networks, June 20, 2002