Tuesday, June 22, 2004

Reductio Ad Absurdum

As if to prove the futility of the modern penchant for reparations, it appears that a group of alleged victims of South African apartheid have set out to sue the current government headed by former anti-apartheid activist Thabo Mbeki!

The South African government is being sued, along with major corporations, by alleged victims of the apartheid era.
The suit, filed in New York, seeks $10bn for "genocide, expropriation and other wrongful acts" by the firms under apartheid, said the US lawyer Ed Fagan.
Controversially, it also demands another $10bn from the post-apartheid government for "continuing to allow companies to exploit victims".
The government plans to defend itself, but would prefer it resolved in SA.
The lawsuit targets mining firms Anglo-American and Goldfields; US computer giant IBM; UBS Bank of Switzerland and local petroleum company Sasol.
"At the end of the day these companies were strategic partners of the (apartheid government)", Mr Fagan told a news conference.

'Win-able case'

He said President Thabo Mbeki's government was also being targeted "because of its failure to fulfil its obligations and its conspiracy with specific companies to violate these people's rights".
Mr Fagan said the action demanded that the government and the companies should pay a $20bn "humanitarian fund".
Words fail me at this point. Perhaps someone else can make better sense of all this than I can; I'll make do by saying that the successful effort by Jewish activist groups to get the Swiss government to pay reparations in the late 1990s has unleashed a trend that is likely to cause headaches in all sorts of unexpected places. These alleged victims of apartheid are likely to do severe economic damage to their fellow countrymen (most of who were also presumably victims of apartheid) in pursuing this thoroughly wrongheaded lawsuit, but one must admit that their stance holds up well by analogy with the Swiss example.

I have a sneaking suspicion that, like the civil actions against Microsoft for "overcharging", the real motive power behind this lawsuit lies not with the victims supposedly being "represented" by Ed Fagan and his accomplices but with the lawyers themselves; a bunch of sharp Ivy League law-school grads cotton on to some piece of plausible grimcrackery to hit the financial big-time and then set about rustling up victims they can use to further their legal entrepreneurialism in court. And short of a certain Godwin's Law invoking ideology, what more appealing cause could there be to ride to legal riches than apartheid?

Even if they were actually to win this lawsuit, I'd bet anything that most of the plaintiffs would never see more than a pittance of any settlement that would come about. That's how it usually is with these sorts of cases, whether we're talking Microsoft, the Erin Brockovich case, the tobacco lawsuits, or even (apparently) the Swiss government settlement, the proceeds from which more than a few actual Holocaust survivors were recorded* as not having seen a single farthing of.

*See, for example, the article by Gabriel Schoenfeld in the September 2000 issue of Commentary magazine, or this Forward article.