People who suffered under apartheid have lambasted President Thabo Mbeki’s “reactionary” government for ruining their claim against international firms that “aided and abetted” the racist government.
Dennis Brutus, one of 90 plaintiffs in the class action brought by human rights group Khulumani, said on Monday that New York Judge John Sprizzo’s dismissal of their suit in the past week was “deeply disappointing” and that former justice minister Penuell Maduna’s intervention was “strongly resented”.
“We have concerns that the minister filed a brief in opposition to our suit, which seems to have had a significant impact on the judge’s decision.
“The brief argued that if judgment was in our favour it would have an adverse effect on foreign investment. This means that they valued financial interests higher than human rights.”
Brutus, an anti-apartheid activist and poet, was detained and shot by members of the South African Police in 1963. He had been banned from publishing poetry and attending gatherings and was arrested while on his way to a meeting. Brutus broke bail and fled to Mozambique, but was arrested and handed to South Africa. He tried to escape and was shot in the back. According to Khulumani’s lawyer, Charles Abrahams, the plaintiffs were victims of torture, sexual assault, indiscriminate shooting and arbitrary detention. Members of their families were victims of extra-judicial killings.
Abrahams said an appeal had been lodged and lawyers were preparing documents “on the factual and legal inaccuracies” in Judge Sprizzo’s judgment given in Southern District Court of New York.
“We asked for damages and, if successful, the amount will be decided by a jury.”
Alvin Anthony, of Jubilee South Africa, an activist group supporting Khulumani, said the legal action was about making corporations accountable.
“Corporates need to be held responsible for their investments. We will heighten our campaign and we will up the tempo.”
Jubilee South Africa chairperson MP Giyose said the affidavit, which the group believed was responsible for Judge Sprizzo’s finding, was placed before the court by the “weightless Maduna on behalf of a South African government dominated by free marketers”.
Giyose added: “For the people of South Africa it is critical to note the reactionary role played by the Mbeki government.”
He said a million-signature petition urging Justice Minister Brigitte Mabandla to recall the affidavit would be circulated.
“The government must associate with our people and not with the companies that have exploited our people,” he said.
However, justice ministry spokesperson Kaizer Kganyago said they welcomed the ruling and added that Maduna’s affidavit reflected the government’s position, which hadn’t changed.
“Our president said we will deal with our own issues and that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission was the correct forum in which these issues were addressed. That hasn’t changed.”
Khulumani is demanding damages from 34 major corporations – including Citigroup, General Electric, IBM, General Motors, Shell Oil, ExxonMobil, Barclays Bank, Ford Motor Company, Daimler-Chrysler, Caltex Petroleum, Deutsche Bank and British Petroleum – which did business in apartheid South Africa, saying they had helped to prop up the system in contravention of a United Nations embargo.
The application was brought using an 18th-century law called the Alien Tort Claims Act, passed to protect US ships from pirates and US diplomats from attack overseas, and which allows foreign victims of human rights abuses to bring lawsuits in American courts.
Khulumani is one of three groups bringing class-suit actions in the US.
In his ruling, Judge Sprizzo declared: “In a world where many countries may fall considerably short of ideal economic, political and social conditions, this court must be extremely cautious in permitting suits here based upon a corporation’s doing business in countries with less than stellar human rights records.”