A people’s tribunal on economic crimes in South Africa has heard submissions on how big corporations evaded the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and how the democratic government failed to implement recommendations from the commission which could have helped better compensate victims of apartheid.

In September 2017, a call for submissions was made for the first people’s tribunal of its kind to ever take place in South Africa. It is the first tribunal to focus on economic crimes in the country.
The tribunal, organised by civil society organisations, seeks to find facts and evidence on entities who are accused of economic wrongdoing, and to compile recommendations in a report.

The tribunal will focus on three main issues of economic crime in South Africa: the violation of the United Nations (UN) embargo on South Africa under the apartheid regime, the 1999 arms deal, and state capture.

Saturday marked the first day of the tribunal. In the former women’s gaol at Constitutional Hill, Johannesburg,  a modest atrium was filled with members of the public and representatives from civil society interest groups.

The tribunal panel of five adjudicators sat at a table in front, with former Constitutional Court justice Zak Yacoob appointed chair of the panel. The other panelists include UN high commissioner of human rights Navi Pillay, social justice activist Mandisa Dyantyi, community rights advocate Allyson Maynard Gibson, and labour activist Dinga Sikwebu .

Standing before them, advocate and former TRC investigations head Dumisa Ntsebeza made his submission as a witness. Ntsebeza described feeling “extremely disappointed” in how the country’s democratic government had failed to implement recommendations the TRC had made for the compensation of apartheid victims.

“Government rejected it, kicked those recommendations in the teeth and settled instead for a once-off payment to victims of R30,000,” Ntsebeza said.

The TRC, in its report, had recommended that government adopt a wealth tax, a once-off levy on corporate income, and that companies on the Johannesburg Stock Exchange pay a donation that is one percent of their market capitalisation (the market value of their outstanding shares). At the time, it was estimated that

The TRC also recommended that big businesses do a study unused land, with the possibility of it being made viable for landless people to build their homes.

The TRC’s final report came out in October 1998, but it was only in 2003 that President Thabo Mbeki announced that the 19 000 apartheid victims identified by the TRC would be compensated R30,000. At the time, he was pressured to adopt a wealth tax, too, but rejected it.

“We do not believe that it would be correct for us to impose the once-off wealth tax on corporations proposed by the TRC,” Mbeki said at the time in Parliament.

Ntsebeza criticised the democratic government at the tribunal, and said that the current dispensation had shown no “political will” to prosecute apartheid perpetrators or seek to recuperate missing billions that flowed out of the country during apartheid.

Most of Saturday was spent hearing evidence on crimes committed by multinational corporations who violated the UN embargo and continued to trade with the South African government. A particular litigation for reparation from companies in the United States was among the focal point of the day, Known informally as the “apartheid case”, the litigation sought to recuperate money from American corporations, including IBM and Ford.

The case was initiated by the Khulumani Support Group, which seeks justice and truth for apartheid victims, in the US courts in 2002. The group claimed that IBM had leased computers to the apartheid regime, which were then used to track the activities of freedom fighters. Ford, the group argued, had helped supply the apartheid South African Defense Force with militarised vehicles.

Khulumani lost the case, because the court ruled that the South African subsidiaries of these companies were responsible, and therefore the crimes occurred outside of the US.

At the tribunal, Charles Abrahams, a human rights lawyer who worked with Khulumani, said that both the South African government and the corporations had argued that the litigation was unnecessary because the TRC had dealt with these transgressions.

“The South African government’s rationale was the TRC process. It felt the TRC dealt with the issue of liability. Our position was no. The ambit of the TRC was in respect of individuals… It didn’t extend to corporations and we believe that was misplaced,” Abrahams said at the tribunal.

Ntsebeza, in his submission, said that the TRC had held special hearings on big business but that none of the domestic or international businesses had come forward for amnesty.

“The evidence before the TRC will show all that they came to do there was justify what they did,” Ntsebeza said.

“All of them felt that there wasn’t a need to come to the TRC and plead for amnesty,” he continued.

Ntsebeza said that it is now up to civil society to take the recommendations the TRC made and make the wider public aware of them so that there is pressure for those proposals to be implemented.

The tribunal will continue for five days, and then the adjudicators will compile a report which will become publicly available. During the proceedings on Saturday, Yacoob made a call for information from anyone in the public who wished to make submissions that are relevant to the tribunal’s terms of reference to contact the tribunal’s organising committee.

The organisers of the tribunal include Open Secrets, Right to Know Campaign, Corruption Watch, Centre for Applied Legal Studies (CALS), Public Affairs Research Institute (PARI), and the Foundation for Human Rights.