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Mbeki’s big blunder: apartheid reparations

By Isaac Mangena

When tabling the Truth and Reconciliation Commission report in Parliament on April 2003, former president Thabo Mbeki lashed out at victims of apartheid brutality who were seeking reparations against multinational companies, most of which are based in the United States.

“We consider it completely unacceptable that matters that are central to the future of our country should be adjudicated in foreign courts which bear no responsibility for the well-being of our country and the observance of the perspective contained in our Constitution of the promotion of national reconciliation,” he said.

Immediately after Mbeki’s reassurances, the rand gained strength against the dollar. Actually, it reached a record high against the dollar in more than two years.

With this, Mbeki had achieved his dream of not chasing away investors from the country by following petty lawsuits in foreign courts. Investors were assured.

It didn’t matter to him that victims of apartheid wanted closure outside of the TRC process, which would include forcing multinational companies like General Motors, Ford, IBM and others major investors in South Africa to pay monetarily for their support of the apartheid regime. The TRC had recommended that $375-million be paid to the victims by government and that these companies pay a wealth tax that would go towards a fund for victims. But Mbeki authorised a “one-time payment” of only about $74-million for “urgent” victims.

And rather than scaring off investors, he went begging to the multinationals to “contribute voluntarily” to the reconstruction and development of the country. Whether they did or didn’t, no one can clearly tell. What we know is that most of the victims of apartheid are still living in poverty, unemployed by the same companies. Reconstruction happened, but at a slow pace. The same victims, and many other poor people today, are now forced to pay more in taxes to fund the current government’s ambitious infrastructure drive as laid out in the R1-trillion budget by Minister Pravin Gordhan.

Either Mbeki was ignorant of the obvious extent of apartheid atrocities on the poor, or he was (as usual) ill-advised by his advisers.

One of his advisers was his trusted lieutenant and former justice minister Penuell Maduna who charged, almost in chorus with Mbeki, that: “The litigation appears to suggest that the government of which I am a member, has done little or nothing about redressing the ravages of the apartheid system.”

At that time, the minister was so adamant to stop the litigation nonsense which was set to embarrass his boss Mbeki among his Western peers that he wrote to New York district court judge John Sprizzo not once but twice, pleading with him to dismiss the litigation “which not only sought to impose liability and damages on corporate South Africa, but which, in effect, sought to set up the claimants as a surrogate government”.

Many were convinced that Mbeki thought his government programmes/social projects such as RDP housing and free water for the poor were his way of paying reparations to the poor. The Khulumani Support Group raised concerns “that the South African government appears to see its significant spending on the general social upliftment of the previously disadvantaged as its form of reparations”.

One can conclude that Mbeki and his honourable minister didn’t see what those who came after them did.

When Jacob Zuma became president, government immediately threw its support behind the class action.

And last week, almost ten years after Mbeki’s blockade, more than twenty victims of apartheid whose families were tortured and/or killed, alongside their representatives from Khulumani, were vindicated when car manufacturing giant General Motors agreed to pay them $1.5-million (R11.2m) worth of shares.

Khulumani took up the case in 2002 for initially 100 plaintiffs against 23 various alleged apartheid collaborators for knowingly helping the apartheid government by selling it weapons and armoured vehicles. The case was heard in New York under the US Allien Tort Claims Act of 1789, the same law that allowed Holocaust survivors to successfully sue Swiss banks, and German and Austrian companies that used slave labour during World War II.

In 2008, the companies were narrowed down to five: General Motors, Ford, Daimler AG, Rhenmetall and IBM (whose assistance to the Nazi regime is extensively chronicled).

This outcome shows how Mbeki let down the poor with some of his pro-Western misjudgments. Maybe this matter would have been wrapped up sooner, before some of the victims died, if Mbeki gave his blessing. Or the settlements would’ve been much bigger if most of these firms were made to pay before they got caught in the throes of economic recession, with the likes of GM now liquidated.

But for what it’s worth, this settlement is a fitting tribute to those who died, including world-renowned political activist and celebrated poet Dennis Brutus who was a leading plaintiff for these victim and was often at loggerheads with Mbeki and Maduna. Brutus died in 2009 at the age of 84 before seeing the outcome of the case.

Whether this minor victory will set a powerful precedent on current and future litigations against multinationals remains to be seen. But it certainly did one thing: it reminded us again about some of Mbeki’s blunders. And hopefully other multinationals will follow GM’s example and do what’s right.

Isaac Mangena is a TV journalist from Limpopo. He previously worked for AFP and Media24. He is a BA graduate from the University of the North (now Limpopo) and is currently the deputy chair of the SADC Media Awards National Adjudication Committee. He writes in his personal capacity and can be contacted at [email protected]

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    • Sterling Ferguson

      How about the blacks that were sold into slavery by the Africans and sent to the US?

    • Sterling Ferguson

      This law of 1789 should allow the blacks in the US to sue for two hundred years of slavery against the US and black AFRICA. The blacks in the US were victims of apartheid and they were terrorized for a hundred years.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Boy oh Boy have you got your facts wrong!

      Mbeki did not want a can of worms opened up – which would have reflected badly on the ANC “armed struggle” mythology.

      I can’t even be bothered to repeat the facts – AGAIN!

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      The TRC was neither about Truth nor about Reconciliation but about targetting the NP (who had won the Western Cape in 1994) and the IFP (who had won Kwa-Zulu Natal in 1994).

      Read the book “People’s War” by Anthea Jeffries.

      What was NOT investigated was the 15,000 – 30,000 deaths in the township “black on black” war which started in the 1980s.

      So now we have a film on ONE Mozambican killed in the Xenophobic violence in 2008.

      And a Special Assignment investigation on ONE Zimbabwean killed in Xenophobic attacks in SA.

      But 20,000 deaths by Black South Africans remain buried and not investigated?

      How is that “Truth”?

      How is that “Reconciliation”?

    • Robard

      This sets an interesting precedent. One wonders about the European companies that does business with Iran, for instance. Can their American subsidiaries potentially be sued in American courts? Same for Chinese companies with American subsidiaries, most of whom have very close ties to that regime.

    • Lerato

      I wonder if there is a perfect government leader!

    • Eric Dube

      @ Sterling, sorry the story is about the victims of apartheid, if you feel strongly about slavery, go on write your own article.

      Back to the story, Mr Mangena I think Mbeki was correct in not dwelling on the past in that regard. The result is symbolic and it will not deter other multi-nationals from operating in authoritarian states. I think the Zuma regime only supported the lawsuit to show how much they were against Mbeki and all that he represented, than anything else.

      To sum up my view, its better to engage the multi-nationals and make them contribute to socal projects than to give a lump sum to a few victims who are likely to abuse or fight over the money, while soiling the country’s reputation among investors in the process. Government should have no business chasing symbolic and trivial victories at the expense of the nation’s real interests.

    • Thapelo

      I do not understand how out of the blue yu decided to pick on Mbeki? I am interested in what triggered you to go for this subject?

    • Una


      Is there a South African who claims to be progressive and yet cannot unpack the Mbeki phenomenon. I am really disappointed with your take. The ANC has the document that they call “The Strategy & Tactics”, you better farmiliarise yourself with its contents then you will understand Mbeki’s stance on many issues. Some of us have never had the privilege of meeting the guy however we new that with his departure the sloose gates have been opened.

    • Dave Harris

      Mbeki’s performance as a president was indeed pitiful and a disgrace to democracy when he said that he will “make himself available” for a third term as President. Furthermore made SA the laughing stock of the world with his AIDS denialism. President Zuma is a giant in comparison to Mbeki who was an autocratic, divisive, absent president, out of touch with the majority of SAns. This is exactly why the beneficiaries of apartheid loved and supported Mbeki , and predicted the end of the world if Jacob Zuma won the 2009 elections. There are many reasons why Mbeki was to SA what George Bush was for the US – a miserable failure.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      What Mbeki did achieve was the Sudan/Darfur division of land. It is not perfect. It has a way to go. But it is a first.

      And, of course, the West and America wanted Al Bashir indited as a war criminal.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Eric Dube, the origin of apartheid was in the USA and the white minority government in SA copied it from the US. Mangena quotes a law passed in the US in 1789 that was used to give the victims compensation that suffered under apartheid, I am saying the blacks in the US suffered worst were never given compensations. Based on your comment, you are total ignorant of the origin of apartheid and think it only existed in SA which is far from being the truth. This is why the US government couldn’t condemn apartheid in SA when the same thing was practiced in the US at that time.

      Moreover, the settlement of the apartheid suit was more symbolic than compensation of the victims because after the legal fees are paid there will very little money left. When one speaks of $1.5 million USD that id peanuts and these people will get about a hundred dollars each.

    • Morena

      Nothing Mbeki said could have precluded the litigants from pursuing their claim; neither would it have had persuasive effect on the decision of the courts (though it could have, admittedly, given the litigants some leverage in their settlement negotiations with the multinational companies). In the end though, the affected companies had to make a cost/benefit analysis of the impact of the litigation on their operations, goodwill and reputation; and some would have taken the view, as General Motors apparently did, that a protracted litigation would potentially harm its commercial prospects and opted for a settlement. However the constant Mbeki/Zuma comparative analysis is often used bluntly for ulterior motives; but without knowing, it unfortunately perpetuate and feeds the notion of internal ANC conflict which the members of the ANC, bizarrely, are happy to embrace. The only loser in this unimaginative comparison is the ANC itself, not a faction.

    • MrK

      Sterling Ferguson,

      ” How about the blacks that were sold into slavery by the Africans and sent to the US? ”

      How about it? Perhaps you also think that the Africans who were stolen from Africa and put to work for free for centuries were amply compensated by being converted to Christianity?

      Do you think that the Holocaust survivors who were compensated to a small extent for the crimes perpetrated on them by the likes IBM were undeserving?

      Or perhaps you are just afraid that reparations in South Africa are going to extend to land redistribution?

      You are so transparant.

    • Seithati Ngaka

      well I agree with dave, president zuma is far with comparison to mbeki…lets see, mbeki was never charged with any sexual misconduct, never brought infront of the court of law to respond to charges of corruption. he never danced around and laughed sarcastically while middle fingering everyone…yes he wasn’t pretencious. when he was forced untimely to step down he didn’t fight, he gracefully left with his dignity intact. he didn’t device ways to eliminate threats by expelling the youth president of the ANC even though he was demonised at the time by presidant zuma to unsit mbeki. yes they are really different. Mbeki was not perfect but you are unfair to judge his perfomance on a few pitfalls and allow them to pooh on the rest of other good he did for our country. I for one I salute him.

      I hear a lot of this “he was an absent president” – I say he was an economist and he did well…he was not absent visiting his lover overseas, he was working for the country. you say out of touch with most SAn – I say he was very much intelligent and easily misunderstood. yes I am not denying that he had shortfalls but i would still choose him over the my current president. Zuma a giant to mbeki, not by a long short. what President zuma did was to take advantage of what the people were alluding to as mr mbeki’s mistakes and made himself shine on them. they said he was aloof – president zuma thought he must sing mchini wam. i could go on and on.

    • Mgeve

      Mbeki was not naive or stupid. He got his education in London School of Economics. He was and everyone of our people in the deep pockets of international conglomerates and imperial governments. The fact remains, if you read The Confessions of an Economic Hit Man wherein the author John Perkings writes: “This is what we at the EHMs do best: we build a global empire. we are an elite group of men and women who utilize international financial organizations to foment conditions that make other nations subservient to the corporatocracy running our biggest corporations, our government, and our banks. Like our counterparts in the Mafia, EHMs provide favors. these take the form of loans to develop infrastructure-electric generating plants, highways, ports, airports, or industrial parks. A condition of such loans is that engineering and construction companies from our own country must build all these projects. In essence, most of the money never leaves the United States;it is simply transferred from banking offices in Washington to engineering offices in New York, Houston, or San Francisco.” This is just a smattering of what Perkings has to say. An interesting book which deals with the innards of international finance and intrigue. There is more one can glean from the book as to how the “contemporary system functions and deep pockets that bankroll it. It is better to light a candle in the dark than to curse in the darkness. For us to better understand our situation, we need facts

    • Alastair Grant

      OMG – I find myself agreeing with Dave Harris. It must be the solar storm.

      It was the headline wot did it – “Mbeki’s big blunder: apartheid reparations”. Really? What about the 300,000 people who died unnecessarily, because he (in his infinite wisdom) decided that antiretroviral drugs were a bad thing.

      And that number, BTW, is not the total number that died during of AIDS-related illness during his time in Tuynhuis, not by a long shot. It’s just the number, estimated by Harvard researchers, that would be alive today if SA had done no more than Botswana or Namibia to treat these people.

      Mind you, Zuma is hardly a “giant” in this area (at least, not politically – I can’t comment on the bits he insists on demonstrating to every woman that crosses his path) – all he’s done is to get out of the way, so that intelligent people can tackle the world’s biggest AIDS epidemic.

      The bottom line – no matter how many people died during the so-called armed struggle, far more are dying every couple of months from a disease fertilized by bad management and prevarication. In due course, you can confidently expect the survivors of the HIV holocaust to be suing the government (which means us, the taxpayers) for reparations for this crime against humanity.

    • nguni

      In case you missed it DH the world is still laughing at our president, not because of his AIDS denialism or obscure racist theories, now it’s the womanising, the 22 or more kids, corruption, suppressing press freedom, etc. No civilised nation on earth take us seriously anymore.
      No, the PRC is not civilised, behind those smiling faces is just a veneer pretending to take sub-saharan nations seriously then to rape resources until nothing is left – the chinese are truely a nation of locusts.

    • seroke

      @ mangena I congratulate Khulumani on this victory. However, a class action pursued on behalf of a few victims suggests that apartheid did not psychologically, socially and economically affect the entire black populace of South Africa. I sympathise with the families of those who selflessly gave up their lives for our liberation however we cannot ignore that the greatest and most inhumane crime ever visited upon our people – APARTHEID has affacted and continues to affect the entire black populace at large in all spheres of life.

      Was it not the majority of the white population of South Africa who kept apartheid alive for all those decades. The Oppenheimers and the likes of Bill Venter benefited from apartheid policies and they too whether directly or indirectly kept apartheid alive.

      We were too hasty with TRC, for there to be reconciliation one must seek forgiveness and take accountability for ones actions. Whites are still to do this and still to take accountability.

      Hence, today whites in South Africa like @ Ferguson still have the audacity to speak at will without any compunction because they (whites) have never been made to take full responsibility for apartheid as a collective. This is further highlighted by statements made by the ill-informed Peter Mulder who lacks any intellectual finesse whatsoever.

      As Khulumani seeks justice, it should remain mindful of these facts and the one irrefutable fact that Apartheid affected all of us.

    • Benzo

      @Alastar Grant: “What about the 300,000 people who died unnecessarily, because he (in his infinite wisdom) decided that antiretroviral drugs were a bad thing.”

      At the time the ARV’s where mainly extending the life for babies (from birth to 4 yrs) , then -if they made it- from 4 to 14 yrs. I have little info on the extension of life expectancy of adults. The economic impact of supplying ARV’s for little return, the added expense of putting children through the education system to find them dead at the age of 12/14…Thabo was an economist after all. At times life and death is guided by economics, even today both in hospitals and on the battle fields of the world.

      At the time, these ARV’s were a lot more expensive than today. Remember the battle of the Minister of health with the pharamceutical world?? And her evading tactics to recommend natural health products (the beetroot advise). Today more people turn to healthy living than to the pharmaceutical solution which in many cases offers a self perpetuating cycle of more and more to fight the negatives of the initial medication.

      I believe Thabo was right and 300.000 “who died unnecessarily” could be honoured as soldiers who gave their life for the economic well being of their country.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      Mbeki went to Sussex University, although he wanted to go to Cambridge or Oxford(ref: Mark Gevisser “Thabo Mbeki”)

      Sussex University was a Red Brick University only 2 years old at the time and Mbeki was only one of 2 black students on the campus (re: Mark Gevisser again).

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Robard, this case was a big sham because million of blacks in the US suffered from apartheid and nobody never paid them a dime. These companies settled a case for nothing with the victims because it wouldn’t cost more money if the case had gone to trial in the US court. There was a good chance if this case had gone to trial the victims could have lost this case because the victims would have to prove how they suffered from the actions of these companies. Even if they had won in the lower court these companies could have taken this case to the supreme court and it take years for the high court to hear this case. Therefore, president Mbeki was right these companies should have been encouraged to invest in SA and the country would have been better off.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @MK, the point I was making that the blacks in the US suffered for more than a hundred years living under the black codes and this was the same as apartheid. As a matter of facts the white minority government of SA copied these codes. However, none of the blacks were compensated for these companies behavior in the US. Many companies would hire blacks in the US and paid them a different wage than white doing the same work. There is a host of examples I could give to justify compensation for the blacks who suffered under US style apartheid and slavery. However,the blacks in the US brought a case to court seeking compensation and it has died in court. Speaking of Africans taking part in the slave trade, Africans did sell their people to the Europeans slave traders for junk. I am not saying one group was undeserving for receiving compensation but, if one group can get compensation for their suffering than all groups can get the same thing.

    • nico

      Stop defending Mbeki,or making unnecessary comparism,the articlE is abt the victims of apparteit,the cruelity that these profit hungry companies did even though there were sanctions agains SA by UN they continued to trade with SA,selling them the same guns and bullettts that killed our brothers and soisters,I know money alone will never briong back all those we lost,but I hope this sends a massage to those profit hungry people who are desstroying our African continent in persuit of richness,subjecting young boys into child labour,ciovil wars and rapes,

    • Huku Nkukhu

      Mbeki and Zuma have both done well for SA, Each one of them have thier pros and cons. Mbeki was a technocrat who had a deeper understanding of SA and global issues, which Zuma as a populist has done is talikng for the poor man. If SAfrican govt had assertively supported the suing of these companies then, there was likely going to be a flight of capital, leaving the country in a worse off situation. Mbeki understands even today the workings of the imperial forces than most of you ‘patriots’.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Nico, why did this group in SA that suffered from apartheid accepted such little money? This settlement is peanuts to these companies and shouldn’t be treated as a big deal. GM in the last quarter made seven billions in profit and this nothing. However, you forgot to mention that Japan and many African countries were trading with SA so, they should be sued also.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Beddy, It was Dr. Zuma who was serving as the health minister when Mandela was president, refused to setup an AIDS treatment program because she says it would cost too much. When Mbeki was made president, he claims HIV didn’t cause AIDS didn’t push to setup any program to treat these victims of AIDS. It was the US president Bush that pressured Mbeki to allow the US to setup the AIDS treatment program in SA. When Obama took office he extended the AIDS treatment program in SA. Zuma held a news conference and announced that the ANC led government was setting up an AIDS treatment program and didn’t mention this was a US program. The next day the US embassy announced that they were funding the AIDS treatment program in SA. The ANC leaders have not been concerned with the people suffering from AIDS in SA because the world cup was more important to them.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      For Heavens Sake! General Motors supplied armoured vechicles for the SADF to go into the townships to stop black killing black in the township war by the “necklace and matches” method used against “sellouts”.

      Kulumani had not a hope in hell of winning their case.

      But a court case would have embarrassed the ANC (and more importantly Mandela).

      So GM offered a settlement.

    • Jack Sparrow

      While I appreciate that the case did have a political element the SA government should have stayed out of it completely. Let whoever sue whoever anywhere without interference. Try and do this to day in SA as well.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Beddy, it would cost more money for this case to go to court in the US then what these people were paid in the settlement. The profit of GM last quarter was seven billions dollars so, this settlement was small change. When the lawyers on both sides of the ocean get their cut the people will get very little. The same thing happened to Oprah when this lady at her school that she had dismissed sued her, Oprah had her lawyer to settle out of court. This case could have cost Oprah millions and she gave this woman a few thousandth to shut her up. The lawyer in this case took half of the money and this lady got very little.

    • The Creator

      Gosh, for a moment I thought that someone had paid apartheid reparations! But it turns out that the Khulumani Support Group sold out, as anyone would have expected them to who knows anything about their backers.

      Apartheid reparations would be an important issue if there were anyone willing to take it seriously, but unfortunately only poor people care.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy

      The Creator

      “Apartheid victims” would have to PROVE damages in a court of law.

      In other words they would have to prove they would have been better off under tribalism.

      That they can’t do.

    • Sterling Ferguson

      @Beddy, I have a Polish friend whom I have been knowing for years and he was taken by the Germans to Germany to work as a slave. He was beaten every day along with other slaves and after the war he was given $5,000 USD. He was in that slave camp for five years and this is all he compensation.

    • http://none Lyndall Beddy


      Which is why the Pole, Walrus, and Derby Lewis assassinated Chris Hani – because he was leader of the COMMUNISTS not because he was black!

      The Poles were as badly treated by the communists as by the Germans, but Rooseveld, who liked Stalin as “a man of the people” and disliked Churchill as an “aristocrat” kept back the American forces so that the Russians would get to Poland first.

    • Tofolux

      @ Isaac, if this is the type of journalism that is going to be produced then citizenry has much to fear. As a citizen, you look to media to inform you of facts in order to make the necessary decisions in terms of serious issues such as health, safety, transportation, investments, politics etc. One does not need papparazi journalism in mainstream media. One needs to know that the journalist has seriously considered the facts, weighed the evidence and reached an objective conclusion, Insodoing, you become credible, trustworthy and your work would be sought after because one knows that you are of sobre thought and not taking any side. As a journalist, isnt that what you would strive for? Respect and integrity?

    • frog

      I’ve read stories about IBM and Nazi germany….now I’ve read this story above….now let me tell u nothing has changed at IBM….they continue to abuse employees and mistreat minorities…..particularly when they speak up about IBM’s financial accounting tricks – this outfit is a bigger scam than ENRON…..when will the world realize that?