Apartheid victims and human rights organisations have claimed a major victory after a surprise landmark ruling by a United States court that will allow them to bring claims for compensation against multinational companies and banks they say propped up the apartheid state. The far-reaching judgment by a panel of three appeal court judges in New York on Friday has already been called a "watershed moment in legal history" because it opens the door for victims of state repression worldwide to hold accountable under the US Alien Torte Statute those who directly and indirectly support such regimes.
It lends credence to the moral outrage against those who do business with the Burmese military junta, to which both Archbishop Desmond Tutu and Nelson Mandela had added their voices.
The appeals ruling by the second circuit court in New York overturned a December 2004 decision by a district court judge, John Sprizzo, to throw out the cases brought by three groups of apartheid victims.
"The decision has significant implications beyond the apartheid reparations claims," said Charles Abraham, South African lawyer for the Khulumani Victims group. "The court now agreed that we may plea a theory (that the companies had) aided and abetted the apartheid regime."
Shirley Gunn, spokesperson for Khulumani, said they were "absolutely over the moon". "We call on the South African government to withdraw its opposing affidavit to the US courts," Gunn said.
The government made a submission to Sprizzo in 2003 and again last year, arguing that the case would infringe on its sovereignty and would scare off foreign investment, while stating the claims should be brought in South African courts. The US State Department also opposed the claims, alongside the defendant companies.
In response, Tutu, former chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, argued that despite TRC reparations, there was nothing standing in the way of victims claiming further compensation from companies which had also failed to acknowledge their role in apartheid.
On Saturday, the government's legal adviser, Enver Daniels, said he had already received the judgment and sent it to Justice Minister, Brigitte Mabandla. He said there would have to be a decision by the full cabinet on whether to continue opposing the claims. It has two weeks to reply.
The 50-odd companies the victims are targeting for compensation include Barclays, BP, Credit Suisse, Hewlett-Packard, Coca-Cola, DaimlerChrysler, Ford, General Motors Corporation, Deutche Bank and Shell Oil.