As was well-argued by Naomi Klein in her bestseller The Shock Doctrine: The Rise of Disaster Capitalism, capital has never failed to profit off disasters, natural or orchestrated.
Klein explained that with the acquiescence of governments, corporations take the fullest advantage of demands that proceed from, for instance, the COVID-19 pandemic or wars, and plant profiteering machinery in line with neoliberalism.
It may be disingenuous to argue that apartheid was instituted in South Africa to make way for private corporate profit.
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But the logic of amorality that worked for corporations dealing with poor Black homeowners in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina, was similar to the motivations of multinational corporations that continued to do business with South Africa‘s apartheid government.
Capital, in spite of the best intentions of individuals, does not have a conscience, as history has made abundantly clear. Where there is profit to be made, it will be made.
In 2002, the Khulumani Support Group, a social justice organization, filed a suit in the US against some of the biggest businesses in the world that led industries in finance, automobiles and technology. The Group wanted these companies to pay up for taking advantage of the acute asymmetry of apartheid to make a profit in South Africa.
It was the first and only time a case had been brought against corporations who continued to do business in South Africa and with the apartheid government. But the lawsuit made the African National Congress (ANC) government uncomfortable.
President Thabo Mbeki at the time said the suit was inimical to South Africa’s “sovereign right to determine, according to internal political and constitutional order, how best to address Apartheid’s legacy”. However, the truth of discomfort was that the ANC knew what was at stake should it appear that it supported the suit’s efforts.
Western governments were very interested in what price the ANC placed on righting past wrongs. The ANC also weighed the opportunity cost of supporting the Group’s suit vis-a-vis losing potentially vast amounts of support from said governments.
The alleged guilty parties were and are quite huge. They included the banks Credit Suisse, UBS and Barclays; giant oil companies Exxon, Mobil and BP; the huge computer company IBM; and auto makers Ford, General Motors and Daimler-Chrysler.
In the end, the suit failed. In 2013, a court in United States ruled that American companies cannot be sued for doing business in apartheid South Africa.
But did foreign companies actually benefit from apartheid? This Washington Post article from 1987 with the headline, “Foreign Companies Profit From Apartheid In S. Africa”, may help us:
“At a time of increasing international pressure for sanctions against South Africa, many foreign investors, led by companies from Taiwan and including some from Israel and Hong Kong, are streaming in here to take advantage of cheap labor created by the apartheid system.
They are setting up factories in tribal “homelands” and large resettlement camps where millions of black people have been relocated under the Pretoria administration’s system of racial and ethnic separation.
With no other work available for people living in these massive concentrations of poverty, and with labor unions either inactive or not permitted in these areas, industrialists are paying factory laborers as little as $7 a week.”