South Africa's big firms oppose tax on past profits

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The Independent Online
South African companies are being asked to pay for the past in the form of a wealth tax or training levy, following a three-day hearing at which business was called to account for its part in apartheid.

If the special Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings - marked by a disappointing stream of qualified apologies from the corporate sector - are anything to go by, few businesses are likely to throw open willingly their coffers.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu, TRC chairman, opened the hearings by singling out the Shell and BP oil companies for criticism because they failed to make individual submissions. "No one today admits to supporting apartheid," said the archbishop. Trade union leader Sam Shilowa wryly said, it seemed everyone was a freedom fighter now.

The biggest corporations insisted they had long opposed apartheid, although some admitted they had not always done all they could. Some, like Anglo American and the Chamber of Mines, even suggested that business had been an apartheid victim, as the system reduced growth rates and barred South African companies from the international market. Johan Rupert, son of Anton Rupert, founder of Rembrandt, the largest Afrikaner business group, said he failed to understand how his company had benefited from apartheid.

At the end of the hearings Koosum Kalyan, Shell SA's general manager, said no one from Shell had testified at the TRC hearings in Johannesburg because they were not invited to do so.

The archbishop's public criticism suggests behind-the-scenes tensions between the Commission and the oil multinationals, but Ms Kalyan said Shell had been told it could still lodge a written submission before 16 December and discussions with the TRC were ongoing.

Ms Kalyan said that while Shell was already heavily involved in South Africa's transformation, the company would consider contributing to a special reparations fund for apartheid victims.

Since President Nelson Mandela took power an informal system of compensation has been in operation. The President, who has made friends with white business leaders, regularly invites corporate giants to fund and build clinics and schools bearing their names. It would be a short-sighted captain of industry who turned down the opportunity of speedy rehabilitation.

But newspaper editors, academics and trade unionists are asking for a more systematic approach to compensation.

Sampie Terreblanche, an economist at the Afrikaans University, Stellenbosch, is suggesting a wealth tax be levied on individuals with assets exceeding R2m (pounds 250,000).