- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 22, 2003

SHARPEVILLE, South Africa — They were not the big names of the struggle against apartheid, and their stories did not make headlines. But they, too, were raped, tortured and imprisoned by the former white-supremacist regime.

Still awaiting compensation from the current government, scores of apartheid victims have pinned their hopes on the distant courts of the United States, where lawsuits have been filed against top international corporations they claim helped prop up the racist government.

Khulumani, a support group for apartheid victims, filed one such suit in New York in November against 20 multinational corporations, including ChevronTexaco and IBM, for what its lawyers said was “knowingly aiding and abetting the apartheid enterprise.”

Corporations that have commented say they will fight the lawsuits.

“ExxonMobil condemns the violation of human rights in any form,” said Sandra Duhe, a spokeswoman for the Texas-based company. “The apartheid era was a tragic chapter of South Africa’s history, and this lawsuit is not helping the South African people or economic development of the nation.”

On Tuesday, Michael Hausfeld, an American lawyer representing the 80 Khulumani members who have filed suit, met with the group to share their stories and field questions.

Meanwhile, another U.S. lawyer, Ed Fagan — who came to prominence after a landmark $1.25 billion settlement with Swiss corporations on behalf of Holocaust victims — met with his South African clients in Sasolburg, a small town about 40 miles south of Johannesburg.

He has filed a class-action lawsuit in New York on behalf of those who suffered occupational disabilities and lost pension funds during apartheid.

President Thabo Mbeki has said his government would not support the lawsuits, a disappointment to those who had hoped the government would be sympathetic.

To date, the only venue for reparations has been through the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, formed to help heal apartheid’s wounds. The commission decided on a one-time government payment of $92.4 million, but only to the 22,000 victims who testified in the hearings.

It has left people such as Thomas Masilo empty-handed.

Mr. Masilo, 62, was in the crowd of demonstrators shot at by apartheid police here in Sharpeville in 1960. Sixty-nine persons were killed — among them two of his cousins and an uncle. Mr. Masilo crawled 300 yards amid gunfire to safety, passing people on the ground with bullets in their backs.

What became known as the Sharpeville massacre was a turning point in the struggle against apartheid, exposing the oppressive reach of the regime.

Mr. Masilo, who is unemployed and joined the suit on behalf of his dead relatives, said he was disappointed by the government’s stance.

“Must I go pinch? Become a criminal? An old man like me? That’s what the government is making me do,” he said.

At the meeting in a dusty gym in the poor town of Sasolburg, Silas Mokwena, a 48-year-old pipe fitter, said money is desperately needed.

The ruling African National Congress “is not good for us,” he said. “We were expecting money so that we can pay for our kids’ education, and the money has not come through.”

Mr. Fagan’s lawsuit is based on U.S. law that gives American courts jurisdiction over violations of international law, regardless of where they occur. It points to several businesses, including automakers it says provided armored vehicles used to patrol black townships and arms manufacturers and oil companies it says violated international sanctions against the white-supremacist regime.

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