A federal judge in New York gave the green light Wednesday for class actions against the corporations under US law allowing rights claims from abroad to be addressed in a US court.
The decision came more than six years after victims' groups first began litigation against the string of auto makers, computer giants and banks who allegedly aided the South African government in its violent repression of blacks.
Michael Hausfeld, one of the attorneys representing the South African plaintiffs, hailed "a major advancement in international law."
Hausfeld's firm said that a trial was not expected until 2011.
In her 144-page ruling, Judge Shira Scheindlen said that the plaintiffs could pursue claims against Daimler, GM and Ford "for aiding and abetting torture ... extrajudicial killing, and apartheid."
She also cleared the way for lawsuits against IBM for "aiding and abetting arbitrary denationalization and apartheid," and against Rheinmetall, the German parent company of Swiss-based arms manufacturer Oerlikon, for "aiding and abetting extrajudicial killing and apartheid."
The plaintiffs have also been given the opportunity to amend and refile claims against Tokyo-based computer company Fujitsu.
Other claims that the South African victims had fought to bring to court -- including against Barclays and UBS banks -- were thrown out.
Khulumani, a South African organization that helps apartheid victims and is one of the plaintiffs in the court action, on Thursday hailed the court decision.
"We are convinced that this lawsuit, should it be successful, will go a long way in satisfying members' material needs; and that will go a long way in contributing to social reconciliation," said Khulumani director Marjorie Jobson.