About 500 apartheid victims gathered for a 12-hour vigil at Community House in Salt River, Cape Town, on Tuesday night in the hope of a positive result in a reparation lawsuit under way on their behalf in New York. They prayed, sang freedom songs, danced and heard speeches relating to their struggle to get reparations from foreign businesses that supported the apartheid regime.
"The vigil is to show that there is support on the ground in South Africa for the lawsuit," said Shirley Gunn of the Khulumani support group, which represents the plaintiffs and has a membership of more than 44 000. Oral argument began in New York yesterday in Khulumani et al vs Barclays et al, in which 87 South African victims are claiming reparations from 23 foreign corporations they accuse of aiding and abetting apartheid.
In papers, Khulumani's lawyers argue that multinational companies played a key role in the way apartheid occurred. "The story of the economic development of (South Africa) is intimately bound up with foreign capital, technology and expertise," the appellants say in papers, quoting apartheid-era South African finance minister Owen Horwood.
Quoting a number of sources, the claimants said private corporate support had been largely responsible for the success of the government's apartheid policies. They said companies had played a strategic role in the apartheid state's defence against civil unrest, with business leaders - including officers of Barclays, Standard Bank and the Anglo American mining company - being appointed to a defence advisory board by then-prime minister PW Botha. "We have obtained some of the top business leaders in South Africa to serve on the Defence Advisory Board in order to advise me from the inside, not only about the armaments industry, but also about the best methods to be applied within the defence force," Botha is quoted as having told parliament.
The defendants say doing business in and with apartheid South Africa did not violate the international norms envisaged by the legislation under which the claim is being brought. The lawsuit is based on common law principles of liability and the Alien Tort Claims Act, which grants US courts jurisdiction over certain violations of international law, regardless of where they occur.
The defendants suggest adjudication would offend the sovereignty of South Africa and compromise US relations with South Africa and other friends. Through its justice ministry, the South African government has filed an affidavit on behalf of the defendants. Lashing out at the government for this, Gunn said it was paying apartheid victims a "measly" R30 000 in reparations.
"I cannot rest until we have made the people and institutions take responsibility for the past. "The South African government must lead the way and not act contrary to international human rights law. "For a society to participate in the future it has to have resolved its past... (and) face its demons and face its ghosts."
St George's Cathedral Dean Rowan Smith said that for many people in South African reconciliation was not enough. He said while the reparation action was not against the government, "we want them to understand why we are asking for reparations. Our hearts are broken because pains of the past have not been healed".
Seeking reparation, Nomakhayo Dyantyi of Philippi said: "I'm hopeful for a positive outcome. My son disappeared in 1986 during the violence in Crossroads. "Until today I don't know what happened to him. "Reparation must be done before we can ever find peace."
Gunn said while the government resented the lawsuit as it feared it would drive away foreign investment, the group had support around the globe. "Our presence here tonight is a victory in itself. It is a victory that we have survived for so long. We are not alone. We have justice on our side," she said.