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Kai Ryssdal: For the past seven years, a pair of lawsuits has been making its way through the federal court system. Five multinational companies, names you'll definitely recognize, have been accused of working with the former apartheid government in South Africa -- of selling it the tools that government then used to brutally suppress the South African population. When the cases eventually go to trial, perhaps by early next year, they may become a new standard for corporate accountability overseas. Gretchen Wilson reports from Johannesburg.
GRETCHEN WILSON: Apartheid was legislated racial segregation, enforced from the 1940s until the early 1990s. Often with brute force. Mpho Masemola remembers the bad old days.
MPHO MASEMOLA: There were a lot of massacres by the apartheid agents shooting innocent people.
In 1984, he was a 20-year-old activist for democracy. His movements were tracked by police, and he was arrested.
MASEMOLA: And during my interrogation, I was brutally assaulted. And they break my bones. And I was electrocuted in my private parts.
He survived other forms of torture that led to ongoing medical conditions in his bladder and his eyes. His right hand lies shriveled at his side. He gulps down anxiety medication. He can't find a job.
Masemola is one of 13 named plaintiffs in a class-action lawsuit against five companies: Ford, General Motors, IBM, and two German firms, automaker Daimler, and weapons maker, Rheinmetall.
Tens of thousands of South Africans like Masemola could be included in this litigation for suffering what's known as "gross human rights violations" during apartheid.
MARJORIE JOBSON: Things like extrajudicial killings, rape, abduction of people, torture.
Marjorie Jobson heads the Khulumani Support Group for survivors of apartheid violence, which supports the litigation. She says these firms knowingly sold South Africa's government the tools to carry out these atrocities.
For example, she says IBM designed computer technology to track and restrict the movement of millions of black South Africans, including people like Masemola.
JOBSON: The actual hardware, the maintenance contracts and all the software to run this system were all developed by IBM.
The U.N. passed a mandatory arms embargo against South Africa in 1977. But plaintiffs say years later Ford Motor Company and General Motors Corporation were selling the government armored vehicles.
They say Daimler-Benz even had a secret plant -- underground -- to make such vehicles.
John Ngcebetsha is a lawyer for the plaintiffs:
JOHN NGCEBETSHA: So that is a violation of international law. Because they knew exactly that those vehicles would have been utilized to kill our people.
He says Rheinmetall sold weapons to South Africa using complicated trade routes. And then exported an entire munitions factory.
Rheinmetall, Ford, and IBM declined Marketplace's requests for interviews. Daimler said in a written statement that the company -- quote -- at no time cooperated with the South African Security Forces for the perpetuation of apartheid -- unquote. General Motors said in a written statement that it had adamantly opposed apartheid. Still, lawyers for the South African plaintiffs expect to prevail in the courts.
NGCEBETSHA: We are confident that we will be able to lay a very strong precedent for global accountability of business.
Plaintiff Mpho Masemola says he prays the suit will succeed. His family survives on a welfare check of less than $200 a month. And he wants monetary reparations from these corporations. But what's more important is the message it sends to companies.
MASEMOLA: Stop supporting torture, stop supporting the governments that are illegal.
South Africa's democratic government used to oppose the litigation, fearing it would scare away foreign investors. But last month, the new administration reversed its decision, and said it would be willing to help negotiate an out-of-court settlement.
In Johannesburg, I'm Gretchen Wilson for Marketplace.