Wednesday, February 29, 2012

US General Motors Settles Apartheid Reparations Claim

Mail & Guardian 
Adrian Ephraim
February 29, 2012.

Thirteen South Africans who suffered at the hands of the apartheid security police have claimed a small victory after a United States court ratified a settlement between the claimants and a bankrupt General Motors.

It is claimed that the corporations produced parts of vehicles that were used by the apartheid police to carry out assassinations of activists and brutal raids.

In a "show of good faith", General Motors negotiated a "without prejudice" settlement with the claimants, despite the fact that the bankruptcy court in the US ruled that they had no claim. The result of this negotiation was finalised by a US court on February 27.

The victims have been represented by the Khulumani Support Group, a lobby group for financial reparations for victims of apartheid, and Lungisile Ntsebeza, brother of leading lawyer Dumisa Ntsebeza.

The Mail & Guardian understands the total amount of the settlement is $1.5-million, to be split between the Khulumani group and the claimants represented by Ntsebeza.

Charles Abrahams, attorney for Khulumani, told the M&G: "The settlement is a small amount. It was a show of good faith on the part of General Motors, considering that they are bankrupt."

Motors Liquidation Company (formerly known as General Motors Corp), filed for bankruptcy on June 1 2009. On July 5 2009, an order was entered approving the sale of all of Motors Liquidation Company's assets to a new and independent company, the new General Motors Company, under the bankruptcy code.

Bullet wounds

Mama Elsie Gishi lives in the poor surroundings of Nyanga, Western Cape with her children and grandchildren. The scars from bullet wounds in her head and chest are a permanent reminder of the brutality she suffered at the hands of the security forces under apartheid rule. She was shot in the 1970s when security police, looking for her husband, burst into her house and opened fire.

Gishi (80) still receives medical treatment every second month for the injuries she sustained. She said most of the money would go towards paying her medical bills.

"It's about time. We are dying here," she said when told the news of the settlement.

It has been 10 years since the lawsuit was first lodged in November 2002 and the General Motors settlement is the first glimmer of hope for the claimants.

There are still cases pending in the Second Circuit Court of Appeal in New York against Ford Motor Company, IBM, Daimler AG and Rheinmetall, Abrahams said.

"It's far from over, but we hope that this settlement motivates the others to reconsider their positions," he said.

A law in US called the Alien Tort Claims Act, which seeks to codify customary international law, protects basic human dignities.It allows non-US citizens to bring cases against non-US citizens in a US court.

The original damages suffered and claimed for were human rights violations including assassination and murder, indiscriminate shooting, prolonged detention without trial, torture and rape (in detention). An additional damage of "denationalisation" (deprivation of citizenship) was later included.

Abrahams praised the South African government's recent support of Khulumani's legal action. In September 2009, Justice Minister Jeff Radebe wrote a letter to the US District Court to confirm that it recognises the court as the best forum to hear the case. This after then president Thabo Mbeki and his justice minister Penuell Maduna in 2003 distanced the government from the litigation, saying it would damage foreign investment in the country.

Shirley Gunn, director of the Human Rights Media Centre on Wednesday appealed to the government to get behind the claimants as they continued their class actionsuit.

"People are frail. They are literally dying while waiting for this to be resolved. Two of the 13 claimants have died already, and the rest are very old," Gunn told the M&G.

"The problem is we can't get to New York. The big companies come in with a team of legal representatives. It really is a case of David versus Goliath."

Comment: I met Advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza when he was a visiting scholar at the University of Connecticut in Storrs.  If my memory serves me right it was early 2002.

I was at UConn for a conference and spent a few days there visiting with a colleague who was working in African Studies.

Anyway, Dumisa Ntsebeza  talked at length about a lawsuit to seek reparations against American and other western companies who profited from apartheid.

I was intrigued by his thinking and invited him to do a guest lecture at PSU where I was teaching.  He accepted and we had more time to talk about a possible lawsuit and the implications such a move would have for transitional justice.

When Dumisa Ntsebeza returned to South Africa he began working closely with the Khulumani Support Group who lodged the lawsuit toward the end of 2002. 

Since then I have followed the lawsuit in press reports here and in the US. 

During the presidency of Thabo Mbeki the lawsuit was often criticized.  Mbeki did not support seeking reparations from foreign companies that did business with apartheid South Africa - being the quintessential neo-liberal president he was scared of the investment repercussions.  

The Zuma administration broke with Mbeki and offered their support.

It has been a hard slog and I am happy to see that there has been some success even if what GM has agreed to pay is small and more likely a matter of making Khulumani disappear from their operational radar.

Perhaps the principle is the greatest reward at this point.  At the very least GM was made not to forget its role in apartheid.



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