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Companies that Profited during Apartheid Hit with Multi-Billion Dollar Lawsuit - 2002-11-12

A group of South African activists has filed a lawsuit against 20 multinational companies for doing business with the former apartheid regime. It is the second lawsuit targeting banks and other businesses that profited in South Africa during apartheid.

Scores of activists filled a church in downtown Johannesburg to celebrate the announcement of the lawsuit, filed in a U.S. federal court. Lawyers filed the suit Monday in a New York courtroom.

The legal action is organized by an anti-debt group known as Jubilee South Africa and the Khulumani Support Group for victims of apartheid.

The suit is filed in the name of 85 individual apartheid victims and Khulumani, which claims to represent 32,000 members. They are seeking billions of dollars in damages from giant multi-national companies.

The defendants' list reads like a "who's who" of international business and finance, including the banks Credit Suisse, UBS and Barclays; giant oil companies Exxon, Mobil and BP; the huge computer company IBM; and auto makers Ford, General Motors and Daimler-Chrysler.

Announcing the court case, social activist Mongezi Guma said the plaintiffs may add as many as 100 more companies to the lawsuit sometime later. "These are an advance guard of the people we are holding before history as accountable to the people of South Africa for their behavior acting in support of the apartheid regime of the past," he said.

The plaintiffs argue that international companies profited from doing business with the white minority government during the apartheid era, despite international sanctions against South Africa at the time. The country became a non-racial democracy in 1994 with the election of Nelson Mandela as president.

The lawsuit is similar to one filed earlier this year by flamboyant U.S. lawyer Ed Fagan. He is best known for winning a claim against Swiss banks on behalf of victims of the Nazi Holocaust. He is seeking $100 billion in compensation for apartheid victims. But Mr. Fagan has been criticized by some in South Africa, who see him as an opportunist out to exploit their painful history for his own profit.

Jubilee South Africa and the Khulumani Support Group are already pursuing a separate court case against the South African government over delayed reparations to victims of apartheid.