Will a US court case set right South Africa's apartheid past?
A group of South Africans has brought suit against 20 multinational corporations, alleging that they were complicit in violent abuses during apartheid. It appears these companies would rather rewrite than confront their apartheid history.
(Page 2 of 2)
Desmond Tutu, the TRC chairman, lamented the "glaring absences" in the business community's testimonials. Given the lack of engagement, in fact, he was forced to conclude that the business hearings "did not mean the end of the process, as there was the question of restitution and repairing the wrongs done."Skip to next paragraph
Subscribe Today to the Monitor
While the TRC recommended that the South African government apply a punitive reparations tax to corporations, no such tax ever materialized. The new government, headed by Mandela's successor, determined that foreign investment was critical to economic growth and shied away from actions that might deter first-world investors. As a result, corporate harms that took place during apartheid fell almost entirely beyond the reach of any formal culpability.
The past's hold on the present cannot be ignored
Although the court case features events that are now long past, it would be a mistake to evaluate them outside the context of present-day South Africa. Almost 17 years after Mandela's democratic revolution, South Africa remains a nation of extreme inequality. The unofficial unemployment rate is 36 percent, and in 2009, according to some measures, it overtook Brazil as the country with the most economic inequality in the world. Apartheid's system of racial classification contained an explicit economic rationale: confining black workers to menial labor to ensure enduring profit margins for a white-controlled economy. The effects have been lasting.
IN PICTURES: South Africa: Sixteen Years After Apartheid
Because the circumstances of the past affect the decisions of the present, it is important to reflect history accurately. The progress of reconciliation and forgiveness cannot disguise what still amounts to an incomplete set of remedies. The current apartheid litigation presents a revived opportunity for victims to obtain justice. While it may yet stumble on procedural grounds, it should not be cut short on the basis of a revisionist historical narrative.