South Africa's capitalists called to account for apartheid years

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The Independent Online
Tomorrow, corporate South Africa will have to answer for its conduct under apartheid at a special three-day hearing of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. Mary Braid asks whether business, which raked in huge profits, should be made to pay for a shameful past.

In his book Reconciliation Through Truth, cabinet minister Kader Asmal argues the concept of "corporate war crimes" ought to be explored in South Africa.

Mr Asmal holds business - like the professions and judiciary - culpable for the apartheid state and compares its complicity with the National Party to the recruitment of business and professional institutes to the Nazi cause in Germany.

Not only did South Africa's large corporations support an immoral regime - until a change of heart (or new perception of self-interest) in the 1980s - but they made massive profits from policies which kept black labour powerless and cheap.

Mr Asmal argues that the mine industry killed many more workers - an estimated 84,000 - than police torturers ever did. And he points out that the country's two business giants, Anton Rupert, founder of the Afrikaner Rembrandt group, and Harry Oppenheimer, former head of English business rival Anglo American, long opposed blacks getting the vote.

At this week's hearings, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) will also go for the business sector's throat arguing it must compensate workers for apartheid. Sam Shilowa, Cosatu general secretary, will argue companies can pay for the past by ending wage discrimination on the basis of race and investing more in training.

With Anglo American, Rembrandt and 30 other companies poised to testify the stage seems set for some frank exchanges. But Mr Asmal and Mr Shilowa will be disappointed if they expect a radical outcome from the hearings.

Last week, few of industry's big boys were willing to reveal the contents of their submissions to the TRC in advance of the hearings. But it is believed that few will offer new revelations about the past and even fewer will make an apology.

It is reported that the Chamber of Mines, representing a number of controversial companies which made a killing in the old days, will concentrate more on the economic contribution of its members than on the social misery many would lay at their door. It will claim that racism was the fault, not of business, but the state.

This week, the TRC commissioner, Dr Fazel Randera, said the farmers' unions - representing some of the most right-wing whites in the country - and the white mine workers' union were alone in refusing to make a submission to the Commission, charged with exposing the atrocities from the past. The farmers' unions claimed it could not speak for a diverse membership of 60,000 while the white mine workers simply said the TRC was biased.

The South African Chamber of Business will make a 40-page submission on behalf of its large membership. But some observers are already disappointed that companies like Shell - which allegedly ensured oil reached the pariah apartheid state - and Mercedes-Benz - criticised for supplying engines to the South African Defence Force - are not making personal submissions.

Sanlam, the huge Afrikaner insurance company, is so far alone in acknowledging that it prospered at the cost of black workers. The only body so far to come up with a compensation suggestion is the Afrikaanse Handelsinstituut, a former pillar of the old regime, which is suggesting that an insurance fund set up by Afrikaner business at the height of political violence in the 1980s, and which now stands at 9 billion rand, be used to benefit those who suffered.

But next week's hearings will be shaped by one inescapable truth; the same companies which did business with the old regime are operating quite nicely with the new, and their presence in South Africa is as crucial to the ANC as it was to the old, beleaguered NP.

This perhaps explains why President Nelson Mandela has chosen to forge a pragmatic path in his dealings with business.

He has made friends of old enemies like Mr Oppenheimer and Mr Rupert, drawing on their economic expertise. But all the while he has been milking them through a quiet campaign which South African writer Mark Gevisser describes in quasi-religious terms.

The country's top businessmen, it transpires, often receive a call from the President just before bedtime. There is a familiar clearing of the throat before Mr Mandela tells tonight's lucky captain of industry which special project needs funding. Thus schools, clinics and community facilities have sprung up in townships all over South Africa as businessmen "buy forgiveness" from the the self-styled "father confessor" to the private sector.

And so grubby corporations are miraculously born again with brand-new, shiny, non-racist credentials. Some people are appalled. When Bill Venter, head of the hi-tech company Altron, sponsored a library to commemorate the life of ANC hero Bram Fischer, Fischer's daughter Ruth Rice was dismayed. Mr Venter, always seen as a friend of the old regime, used the occasion to claim he had always been a champion of human rights. Many wondered exactly where he had been fighting.

Mr Venter later wrote a poem for the President on his birthday. "Your wisdom has woven a tapestry, Much more lovely than any artist's hand, With vibrancy that only we can understand, We who are Africa's people, And feel the heartbeat of this land."

With this kind of schmoozing and behind-the-scenes atonement, this week's public hearings will probably amount to little.