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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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