As the Wold Cup gets underway in South Africa, the German car maker, Daimler’s shady past has been brought to the forefront by a group of apartheid victims, who have pursued legal action against the company. The group claims that Daimler supported the racist apartheid regime in South Africa by supplying it with vehicles that were used by the government to oppress the anti-apartheid activists.
Hauke Goos has written an interesting article in the German media outlet, der Spiegel, published today, which says: “It has been 16 years since apartheid, a system of racial separation, was replaced by democracy. But Khulumani (an organization of victims of apartheid) argues that apartheid still exists, because its victims are being asked to forgive, even though not all of its perpetrators have been called to account. During apartheid, Daimler delivered vehicles to South Africa: The robust trucks known as Unimogs, which the South African police converted into armored vehicles. Daimler’s critics say that the German company supported apartheid and is therefore partly responsible for deaths and torture. Khulumani filed a lawsuit against Daimler many years ago, but it is a difficult case.
When it comes to Daimler, says Jobson (spokeswoman for Khulumani), who is exhausted after the long, tedious search for evidence, the case is relatively clear. The United Nations classified apartheid as a crime against humanity as long ago as 1965. Nevertheless, Daimler continued to do business with South Africa, and even after the 1977 UN weapons embargo, the company supplied the regime with at least 2,500 Unimogs. Because these Unimogs were used to strengthen the police and security forces, Jobson says that Daimler aided and abetted serious human rights violations. If companies truly have a moral responsibility, says Jobson, shouldn’t at least a portion of the profits they earned in South Africa at the time be turned over to those who suffered the most from apartheid?
Khulumani decided to file its lawsuit in the United States, because the potential damage awards are the highest there. This decision led the group to search for an attorney with experience in these kinds of cases. Michael Hausfeld, a partner in a large law firm at the time, had represented Holocaust victims against Swiss banks and had sued the oil company Texaco for employee discrimination. He was also considered an expert in class action suits.
Hausfeld filed Khulumani’s lawsuit in 2002, initially against 21 large companies. They included financial institutions like Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank, Dresdner Bank and Barclays Bank, auto companies like Daimler, Ford and General Motors, computer makers like Fujitsu and IBM, and defense contractors like Germany’s Rheinmetall. They had all lent money, sold factories or supplied computer software to the racist regime. The message of the suit was clear: Not everything that is legal in the world is also legitimate.
In the complaint, Hausfeld attempted to demonstrate that Daimler, for example, had deliberately circumvented the arms embargo. Its vehicles were used by the government in its efforts to control the black homelands and townships and, according to the complaint, Daimler supplied spare parts and equipped the South African police and military with models like its Minibus and Unimog. Using the Unimog and other Mercedes parts, South Africa built its armored personnel carriers, the Buffel, Casspir and Hippo.
The complaint cites an article from the German magazine Wehrtechnik (Military Technology), which describes the Unimog as a small military transporter and quotes a Daimler employee who, after visiting the Mercedes-Benz subsidiary in South Africa in 1988, said at a shareholders’ meeting that he had seen warehouses during his visit where parts for the Buffel were kept in storage. The Buffel, the employee added, was used by the South African government in its war against Angola, as well as in the occupation and control of urban black neighborhoods.
Jobson and Khulumani’s many supporters conducted research and collected potential witness testimony. In their own way, they simply continued the work of the Truth Commission. They probably felt that they couldn’t give up as long as there were companies like Daimler, which simply went about their business without having to account for themselves. Motions and cross-motions were filed, the case was referred to a higher court and then returned to the lower court, and at times it seemed that the suit could simply fizzle en route to a trial. The lawsuit eventually came before a federal judge in Manhattan. In April 2009, the judge ruled that the charges were at least sufficient to continue the proceedings. This meant that if Khulumani’s accusations were justified, in principle, the court would give the plaintiffs the opportunity to prove the accusations.
Of the original 21 companies, most were dropped from the suit over the years, because the prospects of securing a conviction against them for aiding and abetting human rights violations seemed too slim. Five companies remained: Daimler, the American companies IBM, General Motors and Ford, and the Düsseldorf-based defense contractor Rheinmetall. It is a difficult, sensitive case, with far-reaching consequences for both sides. If the suit is successful, it will create a precedent for other multinational corporations that have done business with dictatorships, in places like Chile, Argentina and elsewhere in the world. And it will raise new questions, like: Which products should a company be allowed or not allowed to sell to oppressive regimes? If Unimogs, for example, are forbidden, what about tires? And the gasoline in the vehicles’ tanks?
The lawsuit is dangerous for Daimler. It harms the company’s fourth-star campaign (as the main sponsor for the German soccer team at the World Cup), and it jeopardizes Daimler’s attempt to be a presence at the World Cup without addressing the past. Khulumani will produce a CD with songs in various languages, and the plaintiffs will travel around the country, distributing T-shirts and flyers in front of the stadiums. Apartheid victims will talk about their experiences in each of the 10 venues. They know that the World Cup is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Football provides the stage for the greatest possible impact. “When the German team comes, on that day we’ll be there,” says Reginald Mafu. He too was a member of the ANC. His house was raided, he says, and he was imprisoned for three years. He now works at Khulumani, where his job is to mobilize the organization’s members in Soweto for the World Cup. “We took Daimler to court because of apartheid,” he says. “We were victimized, terrorized, our properties were burnt. We want to show our anger and pain to Daimler, comrades!”
(When asked for an interview by Spiegel) Daimler opted to express its official position in a written statement. A number of phone calls were made first, in an effort to set up on an appointment with the appropriate person at the company. At Daimler headquarters in Stuttgart’s Untertürkheim district, a friendly woman from the press department hands over the company’s printed statement, inserted into a clear plastic sleeve. The statement is clear and divided into four items. Daimler’s response to the accusations fits onto half of a page.
Martin Jäger is responsible for the statement. According to the document, he is the “Director of the Politics and External Relations Division.” This, in essence, is what Jäger writes: Daimler neither committed nor aided and abetted any human rights violations. Its shipments of products were consistently in compliance with international and German laws. In addition, the company says the suit was inadmissible in the United States. Daimler remained in South Africa at the time, Jäger writes, “because we were convinced then, as we are today, that the only way to change things is to be in the country and to be socially involved.” It is still quite complicated, so the press spokeswoman asks a lawyer who is familiar with the case to help clarify. Questions are fine, but he (the lawyer) cannot be quoted. According to the written statement, there will be no out-of-court settlement with Daimler.”