The controversial apartheid lawsuits in New York are proving an obstacle in the path of banking giant Barclays ahead of its multibillion-rand takeover of Absa bank. Anglican Archbishop Njongonkulu Ndungane has been called in as mediator to facilitate talks between Absa and anti-debt activists Jubilee, which this week started a series of protests against Barclays to demand that it apologise for its dealings with apartheid South Africa.
Both Ndungane and Errol Smith, the Absa spokesperson, have confirmed a meeting on Friday in Johannesburg over the issue, but would not give details of the discussions. "We approached Ndungane to open the floor for negotiations with Jubilee to address their concerns," said Smith.
Barclays Bank announced this week that it would acquire a majority R33-billion stake in Absa, pending shareholder agreement, which is lauded as the single biggest foreign direct investment in South Africa ever.
Smith said Absa stepped in after Barclays' lawyers advised against direct talks with Jubilee because it is perceived as backing the Khulumani victims' group apartheid claims in New York, in which Barclays tops the list of multinational companies sued for alleged complicity in apartheid human rights violations.
Barclays is also a defendant in the other two group action victim claims which, with Khulumani's, were dismissed by a district court judge last year. All three victim groups have filed notice to appeal in the last month. Although no details of the mediation is known, it is understood that there was as yet no reparations deal on the agenda.
Ndungane, who was also instrumental in this week's conciliatory meeting between President Thabo Mbeki and Archbishop emeritus Desmond Tutu, had previously offered to mediate between the plaintiffs and defendants to keep the claims out of court. None of the companies took up his offer, but instead approached the government, agreeing to make community reparations in return for state support in squashing the claims.
In dismissing the cases, United States Judge John Sprizzo relied heavily on the government's opposition, particularly a letter written by Penuell Maduna, the former justice minister, stressing that the claims could jeopardise investment. This week both the justice department and Joel Netshitenzhe, the government spokesperson, said their position had not changed. It is understood that they have again been approached by the corporations and an official will travel to the US this month to peruse a joint strategy against the appeals.
Mbeki and the cabinet this week hailed the Barclays investment in Absa, which it said "reflects the confidence of the investor community in the future of our country". Writing in the ANC's weekly online letter ANC Today, Mbeki called the deal an "inspiring and unequivocal vote of confidence", which was made particularly significant by the fact that Barclays Bank had chosen to disinvest from the country during the height of apartheid.
The perception over disinvestment is in ironic contrast with the three groups suing Barclays for complicity, with the first claimant to file in the US, Lungisile Ntsebeza, having been an employee of Barclays in 1973.
Tristan Tyler, the Jubilee spokesperson, said although Jubilee supported Khulumani with its initial claim, it no longer speaks or organises on behalf of it. The protests would continue until Barclays apologised and make reparations to victims to resolve the law suits, however. "But we would like the government not to oppose the appeals and to withdraw its affidavit against the claims," Tyler said.
Marjorie Jobson, the Khulumani spokesperson, said on Friday the group was considering joining the protests against the Barclays/Absa deal, particularly after a meeting with the government this week revealed there was as yet no community reparations policy in place. "There is still nothing on the table and they are about to close the President's Fund when all individual reparations have been paid out," Jobson said.
"Khulumani calls on all Absa shareholders and account holders who were themselves (or who have family members or friends who were) victims and survivors of gross human rights abuses to consider very carefully whether or not to support the takeover of Absa by Barclays," she said.
However, Kaizer Kganyago, the justice spokesperson, said the community reparations policy was being finalised and the Business Trust was still on board to help fund it. Smith criticised Jubilee for sending out the wrong messages about foreign investment and said Absa was "surprised" by its protest during lunch-hour on Friday while Ndungane was in a meeting with Riah Phiyega, Absa's BEE group consultant.
"Jubilee wants an apology, but we are giving back much more," Smith said. "We are putting a lot of capital back into the hands of South Africans. We are reshaping South Africa as a destination for the entire investor community."
Smith said that the Barclays takeover wouldn't stop Absa's transformation and community programmes and its involvement in the Business Trust, the chosen vehicle for community reparations. But he would not say whether any money was earmarked specifically for community reparations.
Jubilee in conjunction with the Anti-Privatisation Trust and other social movements are planning a mass protest march on Absa for May 28.