FORMER education minister Kader Asmal has come under fire for supporting international companies in a lawsuit brought by victims of apartheid atrocities.
The Khulumani reparations group yesterday slammed Asmal "choosing to align himself with the corporations against thousands of victims of apartheid".
The case, involving 25 South Africans who include University of Cape Town sociology professor Lungisile Ntsebeza and Congress of the People MP Thozamile Botha, starts in the US court of appeals in New York today.
Asmal, an honorary professor of law at the University of the Western Cape, has quietly applied to be an amicus curiae or friend of the court - on the side of the corporations!
"Asmal and his friends lobbying the courts to dismiss these lawsuits and absolve corporations will have adverse consequences for victims of human rights violations from Burma to the Democratic Republic of Congo," Khulumani advocacy coordinator Tshepo Madlingozi said yesterday.
The complainants are suing General Motors, Barclays Bank, Fujitsu, UBS, Ford, IBM, Rheinmetall Group AG and Daimler.
They allege the corporations produced vehicle parts that were shipped to South Africa and used in the townships to carry out assassinations of activists and random shootings.
In legal papers filed two weeks ago Asmal and 15 other academics argue that "because defendants are all corporations, we support their request for dismissal of the present lawsuits".
They ask the court to remember that "no international tribunal has ever found a corporation liable for violating customary international law".
"A corporation . lacks the qualities of a moral agent, eg it has no moral conscience . corporate liability does not exist because moral condemnation can only be imposed on natural persons," they argue.
Asmal's intervention is a blow to plaintiffs like Mpho Masemola, who was shot and tortured by the apartheid police.
Masemola, in New York for the case, could not complete his education after a bullet lodged in his brain.
Asmal's legal papers are also a direct snub to President Jacob Zuma, who last year wrote to the court offering the government's support. Zuma's action overturned a previous decision by former president Thabo Mbeki, who was against the case going ahead.
Asmal told Sowetan that he was supporting the corporations because "this is the position of the previous government. There is no international rule that says you can sue a corporation. This is a matter for South Africa to deal with, not for the American courts".
A separate group of international academics have filed their own amicus brief - supporting the South African plaintiffs.