Wed, 23 April 2014
Ford and IBM May Have to Answer for Their Role in Apartheid
A Black Agenda Radio commentary by executive editor Glen Ford
“The judge rejected Ford and IBM’s contention that multinational corporations are legally shielded from these kinds of lawsuits.”
The United States court system, whose value to anyone but the rich is rapidly disappearing, may yet play a role in the unfinished business of South African liberation. A federal district judge in Manhattan ruled that a group of South Africans can proceed with a suit against Ford Motor Company and IBM for doing business with the white regime during the time of apartheid. The plaintiffs include victims of torture and relatives of people killed by the racist government. They will have to prove, not only that the American corporations knew that their products would be used to oppress and torture South Africans, but that Ford and IBM’s purpose in doing business in the country was to “aid and abet” the white authorities.
That’s a very high burden of proof. However, it’s a better shot than the U.S. Supreme Court gave to a group of Nigerian refugees who tried to sue Shell Oil for helping the Nigerian military to systematically torture and kill environmentalists in the 1990s. The High Court’s interpretation of the relevant U.S. law was that the crimes committed in Nigeria didn’t have a close enough connection to the United States. However, the justices left the door open to other cases that might have a stronger connection to the U.S.
This week, federal judge Shira Scheindlin – the same judge who issued the sweeping ruling against New York City’s stop-and-frisk policies, last year – gave the South African plaintiffs permission to make their case. She also rejected Ford and IBM’s contention that multinational corporations are legally shielded from these kinds of lawsuits. Judge Scheindlin found no basis in law to argue that international laws against such things as genocide, slavery, war crimes and piracy “apply only to natural persons and not to corporations.”
“The South African government failed to prosecute perpetrators from the old regime and paid out only paltry reparations to the victims.”
The South African plaintiffs are part of the Khulumani Group, which was created as a response to the weaknesses of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission set up by the new Black government of South Africa. The Khulumani activists say the government failed to prosecute perpetrators from the old regime and paid out only paltry reparations to the victims. Most importantly, the Black government that came to power in 1994 and its reconciliation program provided no redress for the systematic social and economic crimes of apartheid. The Khulumani Group agreed with Frank Meintjies, a South African activist and intellectual who wrote that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission “failed to address the more collective loss of dignity, opportunities and systemic violence experienced by the oppressed.” He continued: “No hearings were held on land issues, on the education system, on the migrant labor system and on the role of companies that collaborated with, and made money from, the apartheid security system” – companies like Ford and IBM.
Thanks to the Khulumani Group’s lawsuit in Manhattan, two U.S.-based multinational corporations may finally have to explain why they gave aid and comfort to South African apartheid.
For Black Agenda Radio, I’m Glen Ford. On the web, go to BlackAgendaReport.com.
BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.com.