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Did the hell of apartheid affect us the same?

By Don Makatile | Jan 13, 2010 | COMMENTS [ 0 ]

There are no better sections of hell; the heat is pervasive.

In the hell on earth - apartheid South Africa - those who sought cooler temperatures opted for exile. The rest took the heat.


There are not enough words to explain the brutality of the practice of separate development, as it was euphemistically called by its architect, Dr HF Verwoerd. It wrecked lives; it took lives.

Could there ever be a comparison between the levels of suffering that the victims of apartheid endured?

Says Professor Sipho Seepe: "Apartheid was a system that dehumanised black people as a whole."

On Monday, 25 South Africans, dubbed the Khulumani support group, took their case to the US Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in New York, where they are seeking reparations for apartheid atrocities.

The court is yet to decide if the case should proceed to jury trial.

Sowetan reported that the plaintiffs are suing multinational companies, among them General Motors, Barclays Bank, Fijutsu, UBS, Ford Motors, IBM, Rheinmetall Group AG and Daimler AG, for having colluded with the apartheid government. "They allege that the corporations produced vehicle parts that were shipped to South Africa and used in the townships to carry out assassinations of liberation movement activists and random shootings," said our report on Monday regarding the eight-year-old civil suit.

Chief among the plaintiffs are Thozamile Botha and Lungisile Ntsebeza.

Botha's struggle credentials have never been in doubt. A trade unionist, the Port Elizabeth-born activist had always been a thorn on the side of the apartheid establishment. When the cops came knocking, after too many skirmishes, he skipped the country, settling in Lesotho where he worked with the late great Chris Hani.

When the ANC was unbanned, he returned to take up positions in post-apartheid government structures, most notably as director-general of embattled Eastern Cape.

He resigned from this post in October 1997.

But he's better known as one of the myriad faces of protest politics in the dark days.

But does this class action in New York suggest that Botha suffered worse than the other opponents of apartheid who helped make Port Elizabeth and surrounds ungovernable at the time? What about the men and women who lost life and limb in such places as Nyanga, Langa, Uitenhage, Crossroads? Did they suffer less?

Says Seepe: "This perspective allows us to claim that we are all victims. As such we can call for reparations for injustices suffered. This is a perspective that informs affirmative actions and all measures that relate to redress.

"But our suffering, mediated by politics of engagement, geography and class location, may be different. Some can claim to have been more disadvantaged than others. Others took steps to fight the system in a direct way and had their loved ones incarcerated, killed, banished and exiled. At the same time, others were victims to companies that colluded and aided the system, thus prolonging their suffering.

"If one approaches the court to seek justice for having suffered stab wounds, the court will deal with the issue at hand. It will not say what about others who were stabbed and who may have sustained far more severe injuries? My sense is that let's leave this to the courts to decide. After all, apartheid was a crime against humanity. Shouldn't this be adequate enough to support those who seek justice?"

Author and academic Lungisile Ntsebeza, who holds a PhD from Rhodes University, is the brother of advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza, who has heard more harrowing tales of the heresy of apartheid during his tenure in the TRC than his brother can ever tell the US courts.

While the Ntsebezas got a good education, there are countless South Africans for whom apartheid made the situation so untenable they couldn't progress beyond the ability to doodle a signature.

Perhaps the tearjerker of the Khulumani group is Mpho Masemola, we reported on Monday, who was shot and tortured by apartheid police and could not complete his education after a bullet and shrapnel lodged in his brain.

But could Masemola, now 44, be the epitome of suffering at the hands of the vicious old order?

The Thabo Mbeki government did not think the action was a good idea and stood against Khulumani. They applied in 2006 for an amicus role in support of the companies.

The Zuma government was quick to voice its support for the victims .

ANC veteran Kader Asmal added fuel to the fire in our Monday report when he applied to be a friend of the court on the side of the companies.

Irrespective of whether or not these 25 plaintiffs get the sympathy of the US courts, what will stop other victims of apartheid claiming from these multinationals or whoever else they feel colluded with the apartheid authorities?

Said Seepe: "Those sufficiently aggrieved had decided to go to the courts for recourse. The courts will apply their minds with regard to the precedent that this will set."


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