Thursday, December 3, 2009

Apartheid class suit going ahead

Thousands in the Eastern Cape have come forward as complainants in a multi-billion dollar class action lawsuit against some of South Africa’s top international firms, writes Asa Sokopo.

The firms, which include Mercedes-Benz (Daimler), IBM, General Motors and Ford, will soon be taken to task for their alleged role in aiding the apartheid regime.

Ten thousand people in the Eastern Cape and thousands more around the country have cleared their final hurdle in one of the biggest lawsuits in the country.

This has been followed by the US government’s call on Tuesday for the dismissal of an appeal by the firms.

Lead attorney John Ngcebetsha of Ngcebetsha Madlanga attorneys told the Daily Dispatch that this was due to a recent letter written by Justice Minister Jeff Radebe for the cases to be settled out of court.

In April, a landmark ruling in a United States court gave advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza and his legal team the right to sue multinational corporations that knowingly “aided and abetted” the apartheid government.

MBSA is accused of supplying apartheid forces with armoured Unimog military vehicles, which were used to suppress public meetings and marches in the country.

GM and Ford are also accused of “aiding and abetting torture … extrajudicial killing and apartheid”.

IBM is accused of providing technology used by the apartheid regime in displacing South Africans to Bantustans.

While Ngcebetsha said that it was impossible to give an exact figure on the lawsuit, it is expected to be worth billions of dollars.

Ngcebetsha also said that the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu), through its general secretary Zwelinzima Vavi, and the Council of Churches(SACC) have also showed their support.

MBSA spokesperson Madelaine van Wyk said that Daimler never cooperated with the South African security forces for the perpetuation of apartheid.

“At numerous times Daimler’s management publicly expressed its opposition to apartheid, including the head of MBSA at that time, J├╝rgen Schrempp, in the immediate presence of representatives of the apartheid regime.

In 1999, Nelson Mandela awarded Mr Schrempp South Africa’s highest civilian medal, the Order of Good Hope, in recognition of his involvement in South Africa,” she said.

The class action lawsuit was brought in 2001 by Ntsebeza, with University of Cape Town sociology professor Lungisile Ntsebeza as lead plaintiff, under America’s Alien Tort Statute, which allows foreigners to bring human rights claims in American courts.

Claims were initially dismissed in 2004 by US district judge John Sprizzo but the class action suit was reinstated on April 8, by Southern District of New York Judge Shira Scheindlin.

The case will be heard on January 6.