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South Africa: Civil Society Challenges Corruption, Past & Present

Evidence of Apartheid Crimes Demand Justice

The first two days of hearings of the first People's Tribunal on Economic Crime have seen powerful evidence given at Constitutional Hill in Johannesburg.

The proceedings, overseen by an esteemed panel of local and international adjudicators chaired by former Constitutional Court Justice Zak Yacoob, heard evidence that reveals a serious failure of accountability for corporations that supported and profited from the apartheid regime.

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Witnesses spoke of the international companies, and particularly global banks that provided systematic assistance to the apartheid regime in the form of loans and investment.

The Tribunal heard crucial evidence of covert collaboration through clandestine help in systematically violating the United Nations weapons embargo. Primary amongst these was the alleged involvement in sanctions busting by the Belgian bank Kredietbank and its Luxembourg subsidiary, KBL.

The evidence provided by Hennie van Vuuren from Open Secrets and Professor Bonita Meyersfeld revealed that the bank systematically and deliberately helped Apartheid era Armscor to purchase weapons in contravention of the compulsory embargo. The argument made to the panel was that this conduct constituted serious complicity with a crime against humanity.

International corruption experts have described this as one of the most serious examples of sanctions busting activities involving a financial institution. Prof. Meyersfeld said that this case shines a light on the fact that there is an urgent need to create a global body to regulate the conduct of banks.

Set against this evidence was the testimony of the Khulumani Support Group and attorney Charles Abrahams. They spoke to the great difficulty faced in attempts to achieve accountability and reparations from Apartheid's corporate collaborators.

TRC Investigator, Advocate Dumisa Ntsebeza, argued that the Truth and Reconciliation Commission fundamentally failed to address this issue either, and yet was used by the South African government to undermine attempts to hold these corporations to account in other forums.

However, Adv. Hermionnne Cronje, an international expert on economic crimes and long-time provincial head of the Asset Forfeiture Unit, stressed that international law and mechanisms are making it easier to seize the assets of the corrupt.

She argued that the People's Tribunal is an important example of the power of civil society in South Africa – crucial to ensuring that state institutions uphold the law regardless of the corporations and powerful individuals involved.

Andrew Feinstein, a former ANC MP and international expert on the crimes of the global arms trade, reminded the panel that corruption is part of the DNA of the global arms trade. He has drawn the Tribunal's attention to the fact that those arms corporations and middlemen that armed Apartheid were the very same actors facilitating the notoriously corrupt deal with a new political elite in South Africa.

The Tribunal will continue to 'join the dots' between past and present economic crime in South Africa from Monday to Wednesday, focusing first on the 1999 Arms Deal and the contemporary allegations of state capture.