Is the name Ed Fagan familiar to you? It soon will be. He is the crusading U.S. lawyer who represented Holocaust survivors in a lawsuit launched against Swiss banks. The international banking community in South Africa is another of his targets. He has initiated a suit for damages caused by slavery in the United States between 1619 and 1865. And Fagan shows no sign of slowing down.
This time he is seeking reparations from Anglo American on behalf of blacks who worked at its mines during South Africa's apartheid regime from 1948 to 1993. His suit charges that Anglo was responsible for exploiting thousands of workers, seizing their property, and stripping South Africa of its natural resources.
The lawsuit follows the release of a report from the Truth and Reconciliation Commission. The report said that companies who benefited from apartheid should pay reparations or face lawsuits from victims. That blacks were paid less than whites, were beaten and intimidated when they tried to unionize, and were not compensated for workplace injuries is a matter of record. What to do about the situation that existed for almost half of the last century is going to be hotly contested.
South African lawyer John Ngcebetsha told the Associated Press that Fagan filed the suit in Nevada, where Anglo owns 70% of and operates the Jerritt Canyon gold mine. The company also owns 67% of and operates the Cripple Creek & Victor (CC&V) gold mine in Colorado.
Anglo objects: "Anglo American strongly rejects the efforts made by U.S. lawyers and others to use U.S. courts to resolve important issues for South Africa's future. Anglo American believes that the question of whether reparations to individuals is an appropriate or effective way to assist in the rebuilding of South Africa is a matter to be resolved through South Africa's democratic processes (including, if necessary, its courts), as part of South Africa's ongoing broad efforts to bring about reconciliation and reconstruction after apartheid."
The company has a valid point in that the situation should be resolved in South Africa where the abuses occurred.
Anglo has not been unsympathetic to the wrongs of the apartheid era. "The company has already made extensive contributions to the process of reconciliation and reconstruction that is underway in South Africa, including acting in partnership with South Africa's many governmental and non-governmental initiatives to redress the effects of apartheid," according to its web site. "During the apartheid era Anglo American undertook many actions in opposition to apartheid policies and in support of anti-apartheid campaigners. We firmly believe that our opposition helped bring about an end to the apartheid system."
Well, Fagan, his associates and his clients think otherwise. It takes chutzpah to ask for US$6.1 billion in damages, and who better to pay than the company with the deepest pockets? But those pockets are not bottomless. A court award of this amount plus legal costs would certainly gut the company if not put Anglo out of business completely. The corporation forms a very large portion of South Africa's mining community, which is a pillar of the country's economy. How would bankrupting Anglo American help a country that so eagerly wants to participate in the 21st Century?
I hope that Fagan's suit fails and quickly. Think of the millions Anglo will have to spend defending itself. That money could much better be spent in South Africa working with South Africans to redress the situation. It does not belong in the pockets of greedy American lawyers.