On Apartheid Reparations
In January, Mail & Guardian reported that South Africa’s Public Protector’s office had released a preliminary report that found Absa liable for some apartheid-era debt. Back in 1985, at the height of instability in the townships and with sanctions raining on apartheid South Africa, the Reserve Bank granted a R1.125 billion bailout loan to Bankorp Group Ltd. In 1992, Absa bought Bankorp Group.
When the Reserve Bank granted the loan, international banks had ceased doing business with South African financial institutions – mainly because they couldn’t pay. The Public Protector’s report is said to recommend that Absa pay back the R2 billion into the country’s coffers. It should be noted that a committee tasked with investigating the so-called Absa Lifeboat found in 2002 that Absa had not benefitted from the loan. Sanlam, the company that sold Bankorp Group Ltd was thought to be the major beneficiaries of the loan.
Many other businesses benefitted from the structures of apartheid and have failed to pay reparations. While their benefits were not in the form of direct loans from government structures, these businesses continued to operate in apartheid South Africa. Arguably, putting their profits above human rights. Many anti-apartheid activists ended up boycotting these corporations in their own countries.
In 2002, a lawsuit was filed against US companies that had operated in apartheid South Africa by Khulumani Support Group. These companies were believed to have given the apartheid government the tools and means to carry out abuse again black citizens. These companies are also believed to have benefitted from apartheid’s human rights violations. This would become a decade-long battle. Thabo Mbeki, then-president, and his ministers of trade & industry and justice at the time said they would not be enforcing any decisions made by foreign courts in the matter.
When this lawsuit was filed, it sought nearly $400 billion in compensation. Contrast that against the R800 million that treasury put aside in 2003 to compensate apartheid victims. The money was to be paid out to 19 000 apartheid victims (R30, 000 for each beneficiary). These beneficiaries were family members of those whose cases (often brutal murders) were heard at the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) nearly a decade earlier. And sometimes, they were the survivors themselves. These were people who still had physical and mental scars and medical conditions that needed treatment.
The once-off payment of R30 000 was much less than what the TRC had recommended. The commission had recommended between R17 000 and R24 000 per victim for six years. It had also recommended a reparation for 128 communities affected by apartheid. You know the ones. Where the air is heavy and the streets feel plenty haunted. In 2016, well over a decade since “The President’s Fund” was established, it was said to hold about R1.35 billion still.
There is a huge overlap between the lists of beneficiations provided by the TRC and those collated by Khulumani Support Group. As of 2016, Khulumani Support Group has 100 000 members. All victims of apartheid brutality. Another overlap is that Khulumani group has found that the community projects supported by “The Presidents Fund” – only in 18 of the 128 communities recommended by the TRC – are things for which provincial and national government should be responsible. Basic service delivery.
After a decade, the suit filed in the US, whose respondents had dwindled down from 23 companies to five because the plaintiffs had to tie companies directly to apartheid brutality, ended. The initial roster of companies being sued for either providing services and means to the South African apartheid government or actual weaponry included Barclays National Bank Ltd, British Petroleum, Shell Oil and DaimlerChrysler AG. The remaining companies Daimler AG, the Ford Motor Company, General Motors, IBM and Rheinmetall were named as having directly made money from apartheid brutality by selling equipment used to counter protests. It’s the armoured trucks, the guns, the grenades, the batons or, in the case of IBM, software used for racial population registration. General Motors settled out of court in 2012.
Many of the people who are members of Khulumani Support Group or those people who were not on the TRC’s list have firsthand experience of apartheid brutality and are still living with the aftermath in terms of medical as well as psychological complications.
Apartheid was a humiliating system that taxed those it oppressed. If we are to truly attain economic freedom and equality, surely these companies that made gains from the system of apartheid should be part of the solution.There is no divorcing the constant flare ups of Afrophobia from our recent history or from the scarcity of resources and opportunities it created. However, in 2017 what do apartheid reparations look like in a post-RDP South Africa that insists that there should be an assistant threshold and disregards generational trickle-down of trauma and disenfranchisement? We have yet to see.