For victims of South Africa’s defunct apartheid regime, it is a financially small, but symbolically important victory over a U.S. corporate icon.
This week, car giant General Motors agreed to pay up to 1.5 million dollars to a group of more than 20 South Africans who suffered torture, arrest and other forms of harassment at the hands of the regime.
The claimants are suing the car company and four other global firms for their allegedly crucial role in supporting white-minority rule ― which ended in 1994 when Nelson Mandela was elected the first black president of South Africa.
“It’s both symbolic and it is a step in the direction of a real reparation package,” Shirley Gunn, the director of Human Rights Media Centre in South Africa, told dpa.
“There will be tangible benefits,” Gunn insisted, saying each claimant would get a small sum of money and the rest of the pot would be put into a fund to help push for compensation for other victims of apartheid.
Early last decade, the Khulumani Support Group filed suit in the United States against 20 large firms. Most of the cases, particularly against banks and oil companies, were dismissed, as those firms were seen as having provided normal services to the government.
But the case went ahead against GM, fellow car makers Ford and Daimler, computer hardware manufacturer IBM and German automotive and defence group Rheinmetall.
These five firms were said to have not only conducted normal business relations with the apartheid regime, but supplied it with the means to oppress the population.
In launching the suit, Khulumani took inspiration from Jewish organizations that sued companies who helped enable genocide during World War II. The group also learned a lesson from Holocaust victims: act quickly, before many of the claimants are dead.
“With GM, a precedent is set. I think this puts significant pressure on the remaining four to come to the table. They are now wasting money on going to court, paying for expensive lawyers,” said Gunn, who is supporting the Khulumani group.
GM said it chose to settle rather than keep fighting a lengthy battle.
“GM was a strong opponent of apartheid and settled these claims because it was preferable to continuing to litigate them,” said Alan Adler, a GM spokesman, in an email sent to dpa.
Adler explained that since GM went bankrupt during the global economic downturn, the payout will be coming from a trust created as part of the wind-down of the old company.
As the company embarks on a fresh lease on life, Gunn believes GM wants to maintain good relations with South Africa ― the largest economy on the continent.
Depending on how much money is available to the trust, the actual payout would likely be less than 1.5 million dollar. But for the victims, it is a step towards healing.
“We come from a very dark and brutal past. Some of these multinationals had dealings with the apartheid regime, knowing full well they were supporting an illegitimate, violent, undemocratic, minority government,” says Gunn, herself a victim of the old regime’s repression.
“Those vehicles, the technology, the arms ― these were needed for the regime to impose itself, to keep in power,” she says.
For the Khulumani group the road has not been easy. Some U.S. judges have questioned the Alien Tort Claims Act, a law which allows foreigners to sue companies in the U.S. for crimes committed abroad.
More difficult still was the part played by the post-apartheid government under former president Thabo Mbeki, who sent his envoys to the US to hamstring the claimants.
Mbeki’s administration argued the suits would infringe on South Africa’s sovereignty and hurt foreign investment.
But after Jacob Zuma was elected president in 2009, his administration took a different approach. Zuma sent his justice minister to the US to back the Khulumani group’s case, though he preferred a settlement to long litigation.
Analysts say the reparations are a touchy issue for the South African government, as many citizens feel they should be compensated for abuses over the four decades of Apartheid. (DPA)