South Africa urges dismissal of apartheid case

US lawyer Ed Fagan announcing the case in Switzerland last year Keystone Archive

The South African government has asked a United States court to dismiss apartheid lawsuits brought against major multinationals, including Swiss banks.

This content was published on July 31, 2003 - 10:13

In a letter filed with the US District Court in New York, the justice ministry argued that the multi-billion dollar claims could hurt the South African economy.

The lawsuits, filed on behalf of thousands of black South Africans, accuse more than 120 local and foreign firms of profiting from the apartheid system, which was abandoned in 1994.

Top Swiss banks UBS and Credit Suisse, and multinationals including Nestlé, Novartis, Exxon Mobil and General Motors, are among the companies named in the lawsuits.

In his letter, South African justice minister Penuell Maduna reiterated his government’s view that the legal action would harm the country’s image abroad.

He added that permitting the litigation to go forward would discourage much-needed foreign investment in South Africa.

Nozipho January, the South African Ambassador to Bern, said "The investors have indicated that if this class action suit goes through that it would influence future foreign investment ... and we had to listen to that comment."

Mbeki visit

On a visit to Switzerland in June, South African President Thabo Mbeki also spoke out strongly against the legal action.

“We don’t believe it’s correct that matters related to the future of South Africa should be decided by US courts,” Mbeki said at the time.

The lawsuits have been filed under an American law - called the Alien Tort Act of 1789 - which gives US courts jurisdiction over certain aspects of international law.

“We always said we prefer to do it our way because of our value system – and South Africans are basically peace loving people – but also very proud.

We want it to be in line with the principles of reconciliation, reconstruction, reparation and goodwill,” January said.

At the helm of the claims are US lawyers Ed Fagan and Michael Hausfeld.

Fagan is well known in Switzerland for his role in forcing Swiss banks to reach a settlement with Holocaust victims and their heirs.

Fagan's team has until September 8 to respond to the South African request to dismiss the case.

Access blocked

In April the Swiss government decided to block access to government archives on the country's ties to the apartheid regime in South Africa.

At the time, the finance ministry said the move was designed to protect Swiss companies facing class-action lawsuits in the US.

It believed there was a risk that Swiss firms would be singled out for harsh treatment.

The federal archives had been opened in May 2000 as part of a national research programme into the Swiss-South-African relationship during the apartheid era.

The investigation by the Swiss National Science Foundation is scheduled to finish later this year.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

South Africa has asked a US district court to dismiss apartheid claims against multinationals, which include Swiss companies.

The South African government says the multi-billion dollar lawsuits would harm the country's economy.

Thousands of black South Africans bringing the lawsuits accuse more than 120 firms of profiting from apartheid.

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