A few days after it was announced that Daimler would supply 460 luxury buses for the World Cup in South Africa, Marjorie Jobson is sitting with four other people in a gray room in Johannesburg. She tells the group that they might to want to rethink the poster issue.
Jobson is joined by a lawyer who has come all the way from Cape Town for the meeting, an old man from Soweto, a blogger who appears to be some sort of an expert in advertising, and a young woman from Barcelona, cradling her young child in her lap. They are searching for a strategy to address the question of how Daimler AG, a company with 256,000 employees worldwide and sales of about €80 billion ($96 billion) in 2009, should be received in South Africa.
Daimler is the principal sponsor of the German national team at the World Cup. Its campaign is called "The Fourth Star for Germany," and it comes complete with lapel pins for fans. The fourth star is an allusion to a possible fourth German World Cup title.
Jobson is a petite woman with practical shoes and a practical hairstyle. A plastic bag filled with USB flash drives is on the table in front of her. "We don't have much time left," she says.
The World Cup opening match is getting closer. They don't have a video screen yet, the issue of the fan zone needs to be resolved, and the group is still looking for celebrities willing to appear for free. The sun is setting over Johannesburg as Jobson stares at the screen of her laptop.
Torture and Mysterious Deaths
She is the spokeswoman for Khulumani, an organization of victims of apartheid. Khulumani's archives, kept in a room diagonally across the hallway, consist of thousands of accounts of arrests, torture and mysterious deaths, thousands of names, carefully noted on index cards. Khulumani counts 58,000 members worldwide. Jobson, 58, is their voice.
The poster is meant to connect the index cards in the Khulumani archive with Daimler, sports with politics and the past with the present. It isn't clear yet whether this will work.
It has been 16 years since apartheid, a system of racial separation, was replaced by democracy. But Khulumani argues that apartheid still exists, because its victims are being asked to forgive, even though not all of its perpetrators have been called to account.
During apartheid, Daimler delivered vehicles to South Africa: The robust trucks known as Unimogs, which the South African police converted into armored vehicles. Daimler's critics say that the German company supported apartheid and is therefore partly responsible for deaths and torture. Khulumani filed a lawsuit against Daimler many years ago, but it is a difficult case.
To improve Khulumani's chances of succeeding, or at least of obtaining a settlement, the group feels that it has to dial up the pressure on Daimler. They have to achieve the "biggest impact," Jobson says quietly.
Coffins in the Star
She pulls her laptop towards her to look at the designs a graphic artist has sent. The time has come to confront the enemy head-on. Jobson clicks on the first poster design. It depicts a Mercedes star with blood dripping from the edge. She isn't quite sure whether the blood is really such a good idea, says Jobson. The others nod.
The second design also shows a Mercedes star, but this time the points of the star have been replaced by three coffins, with a white cross on each coffin. There is a murmur of approval.
Finally, in the third design, the star is shown rolling across South Africa, cutting the country in half.
Their campaign is that of a few apartheid victims, old, frail and often sick, taking on a multinational corporation. And about the question of what is more important, business or morality.
The members liked the design with the coffins the best, says Jobson, smiling. Perhaps the coffins and the blood could somehow be combined?
Jobson happened upon Khulumani in 1997. The Truth and Reconciliation Commission was in session in Cape Town at the time. Under the chairmanship of Bishop Desmond Tutu, the commission's goal was to attempt to take stock of apartheid, in a manner of speaking, while at the same time providing a sustainable foundation for a new, democratic South Africa and a more just future.
What About the Companies?
Jobson comes from a courageous family. Her mother was one of the founders of Black Sash, a civil rights movement that has championed democracy and equal rights since the 1950s. Jobson is white, which adds to her authority in this role.
The Truth Commission remained in session for almost five years, hearing the testimony of thousands of witnesses and almost as many perpetrators. In the end, the victims received a document that certified their status, as well as compensation of a few thousand rand, or a few hundred euros.
But for most of the victims this wasn't enough. During the hearings, the gap between apartheid and the new era seemed to widen, as the victims' stories imperceptibly became part of history. When the final report was published, it seemed to represent a seal being placed on the past.
Jobson was disappointed. The role of companies, she says, was largely factored out of the hearings. Did companies that did business with the government profit from apartheid? Are companies only responsible for the quality of their products? Or should they also be held accountable for what can be done with those products?
When it comes to Daimler, says Jobson, who is exhausted after the long, tedious search for evidence, the case is relatively clear. The United Nations classified apartheid as a crime against humanity as long ago as 1965. Nevertheless, Daimler continued to do business with South Africa, and even after the 1977 UN weapons embargo, the company supplied the regime with at least 2,500 Unimogs. Because these Unimogs were used to strengthen the police and security forces, Jobson says that Daimler aided and abetted serious human rights violations.
If companies truly have a moral responsibility, says Jobson, shouldn't at least a portion of the profits they earned in South Africa at the time be turned over to those who suffered the most from apartheid?
Of Legality and Legitimacy
Khulumani decided to file its lawsuit in the United States, because the potential damage awards are the highest there. This decision led the group to search for an attorney with experience in these kinds of cases.
Michael Hausfeld, a partner in a large law firm at the time, had represented Holocaust victims against Swiss banks and had sued the oil company Texaco for employee discrimination. He was also considered an expert in class action suits.
Hausfeld filed Khulumani's lawsuit in 2002, initially against 21 large companies. They included financial institutions like Deutsche Bank, Commerzbank, Dresdner Bank and Barclays Bank, auto companies like Daimler, Ford and General Motors, computer makers like Fujitsu and IBM, and defense contractors like Germany's Rheinmetall. They had all lent money, sold factories or supplied computer software to the racist regime. The message of the suit was clear: Not everything that is legal in the world is also legitimate.
In the complaint, Hausfeld attempted to demonstrate that Daimler, for example, had deliberately circumvented the arms embargo. Its vehicles were used by the government in its efforts to control the black homelands and townships and, according to the complaint, Daimler supplied spare parts and equipped the South African police and military with models like its Minibus and Unimog. Using the Unimog and other Mercedes parts, South Africa built its armored personnel carriers, the Buffel, Casspir and Hippo.
The complaint cites an article from the German magazine Wehrtechnik (Military Technology), which describes the Unimog as a small military transporter and quotes a Daimler employee who, after visiting the Mercedes-Benz subsidiary in South Africa in 1988, said at a shareholders' meeting that he had seen warehouses during his visit where parts for the Buffel were kept in storage. The Buffel, the employee added, was used by the South African government in its war against Angola, as well as in the occupation and control of urban black neighborhoods.
Gaps Are There to Be Bridged
Jobson and Khulumani's many supporters conducted research and collected potential witness testimony. In their own way, they simply continued the work of the Truth Commission. At the time, says Jobson, smiling, there was a gap between her own, high expectations and South African reality. "But aren't gaps there to be bridged?"
They probably felt that they couldn't give up as long as there were companies like Daimler, which simply went about their business without having to account for themselves. For Khulumani, a Truth Commission that was in session for a few years couldn't possibly overcome the many decades of apartheid.
Motions and cross-motions were filed, the case was referred to a higher court and then returned to the lower court, and at times it seemed that the suit could simply fizzle en route to a trial.
Jobson is not a lawyer. She studied medicine and worked as a pediatrician in various homelands for a period of time. She has spent her entire life fighting for civil rights and against racial segregation, for democracy and against oppression. Her experience has taught her that a lot can be achieved through personal commitment.
She searches for two names in her records, two of 13 victims of apartheid who are suing Daimler on behalf of the other victims.
According to the complaint, Mamosadi Catherine Mlangeni was repeatedly arrested, beaten and imprisoned. She now lives in Soweto, the township where more than 500 people died in riots by high school and university students in 1976. Mlangeni invites us into her living room, where she sits down wearily in a chair by the window and rests her head against a wooden sideboard in the dim light.
Hearing an Explosion from the Kitchen
Her eldest son Bheki was active in the ANC at the time, she says, despite emergency rule and the curfew. When the police couldn't find Bheki, Mlangeni was taken to the police station and locked up.
One day Bheki received a message that there was a package waiting for him at the post office. It contained a Walkman. Bheki went home, put on the headphones and turned on the device. It was a letter bomb. Mlangeni was in the kitchen when she heard the explosion.
When did that happen?
The old woman pulls herself up and hobbles over to a photo hanging on the wall next to the sideboard. She takes it down, tries to make out a date on the back and then places it on the table. The black-and-white image depicts a young man in suit and tie. He is smiling. Bheki was 33 years old, she says. The photo sits on the living room table like a tombstone.
How does she know that she was taken to the police station in Daimler vehicles?
They always came in these vehicles, the Hippo, the Buffel, says Mlangeni. Everyone recognized the vehicles, even the kids.
Jobson needs stories like Mlangeni's. She hopes that they will ensure that her organization's lawsuit doesn't get lost in a maze of legal technicalities.
'A Bigger Context'
She travels around the country untiringly, introducing herself, meeting people and constantly searching for allies and arguments that she hopes will eventually turn the fight against the corporations into a movement and the movement into a revolution of sorts -- a revolution of the law and a revolution of morality.
She recently attended the annual meeting of Bench Marks, a church organization she has gained as an ally. During the meeting, a young woman gave a presentation in which there was much talk of "global corporate responsibility." "Not everything can be translated into numbers," she said. "It's not all about the financials. There's a bigger context."
Jobson said upright in her chair and listened to the woman speak, occasionally taking notes in the small notebook she had brought along. She seemed to be making an effort not to lose sight of the core issue.
This isn't always easy. At the very beginning, shortly after the lawsuit was filed, a number seeped into the debate that drew attention away from the discussion of corporate morality, and continues to do so today. The number indicated how much money there was to be had from the accused companies. It was a fantasy number, Jobson says today, with no connection to reality.
The number was $400 billion (€333 billion) -- more than four times Daimler's annual sales.
Daimler's Own Morality
Jobson knows that this number has had a devastating effect, but she can't do anything about it. A number like $400 billion sparks hopes and fuels expectations that can probably never be met. Jobson's job is to protect a just cause against this monstrous number.
The lawsuit eventually came before a federal judge in Manhattan. In April 2009, the judge ruled that the charges were at least sufficient to continue the proceedings. This meant that if Khulumani's accusations were justified, in principle, the court would give the plaintiffs the opportunity to prove the accusations.
Of the original 21 companies, most were dropped from the suit over the years, because the prospects of securing a conviction against them for aiding and abetting human rights violations seemed too slim. Five companies remained: Daimler, the American companies IBM, General Motors and Ford, and the Düsseldorf-based defense contractor Rheinmetall.
It is a difficult, sensitive case, with far-reaching consequences for both sides. If the suit is successful, it will create a precedent for other multinational corporations that have done business with dictatorships, in places like Chile, Argentina and elsewhere in the world. And it will raise new questions, like: Which products should a company be allowed or not allowed to sell to oppressive regimes? If Unimogs, for example, are forbidden, what about tires? And the gasoline in the vehicles' tanks?
Dangerous for Daimler
Khulumani fears that it will disappoint all those who have pinned their hopes on this lawsuit. Jobson is worried that the $400 billion fantasy number will crush her organization's effort.
The lawsuit is dangerous for Daimler. It harms the company's fourth-star campaign, and it jeopardizes Daimler's attempt to be a presence at the World Cup without addressing the past.
The World Cup games are broadcast in almost every country on earth. The attention of billions of people will be directed at South Africa during the World Cup.
Khulumani will produce a CD with songs in various languages, and the plaintiffs will travel around the country, distributing T-shirts and flyers in front of the stadiums. Apartheid victims will talk about their experiences in each of the 10 venues. They know that the World Cup is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Football provides the stage for the greatest possible impact.
"When the German team comes, on that day we'll be there," says Reginald Mafu. He too was a member of the ANC. His house was raided, he says, and he was imprisoned for three years. He now works at Khulumani, where his job is to mobilize the organization's members in Soweto for the World Cup.
On the day after Jobson showed the group the poster designs, Mafu drives out to Soweto. In a small Methodist church, he tells the members of the congregation about the campaigns Khulumani has planned for the World Cup.
"We took Daimler to court because of apartheid," he says. "We were victimized, terrorized, our properties were burnt. We want to show our anger and pain to Daimler, comrades!"
'Voice Our Anger'
Mafu knows that most of the fans coming to South Africa are not particularly interested in the country's history, but that isn't the important thing. "We are not disturbing the ball, but we have to voice our anger," says Mafu.
At the end of his presentation, he points to two young men in the room. "Their father was shot to death. He was the family's breadwinner. They are the victims. We must make it clear to the Daimler people that they have destroyed our lives and our future!"
It isn't exactly easy to talk to someone at Daimler about the accusations. The fourth-star campaign is just getting underway. Perhaps this isn't the right time for the issue, or perhaps they're just afraid of being misunderstood shortly before the World Cup.
Daimler opted to express its official position in a written statement. A number of phone calls were made first, in an effort to set up on an appointment with the appropriate person at the company. At Daimler headquarters in Stuttgart's Untertürkheim district, a friendly woman from the press department hands over the company's printed statement, inserted into a clear plastic sleeve. The statement is clear and divided into four items. Daimler's response to the accusations fits onto half of a page.
Martin Jäger is responsible for the statement. According to the document, he is the "Director of the Politics and External Relations Division." This, in essence, is what Jäger writes: Daimler neither committed nor aided and abetted any human rights violations. Its shipments of products were consistently in compliance with international and German laws. In addition, the company says the suit was inadmissible in the United States. Daimler remained in South Africa at the time, Jäger writes, "because we were convinced then, as we are today, that the only way to change things is to be in the country and to be socially involved."
It is still quite complicated, so the press spokeswoman asks a lawyer who is familiar with the case to help clarify. Questions are fine, but he cannot be quoted.
At the time, says the lawyer, Daimler attempted to establish a counterweight. There was a strategy to bring about peaceful change in the country, he says, which could be summed up as follows: political isolation alongside economic cooperation. Daimler did in fact remain in the country to change things, he says. Many people expected companies like Daimler to take a position, he adds, and Daimler did have a position at the time.
Perhaps this argument explains why the Daimler executives in Untertürkheim are so outraged over the lawsuit, the accusations and the protests. They claim that Daimler gave blacks access to educational facilities and tried to show white South Africans that democracy was an option. To this day, they say, Daimler is socially involved in South Africa, where it supports schools and the fight against AIDS.
Apart from this, says Daimler, it is of course important to create a legally secure framework for multinational companies.
Daimler AG is using moral arguments, as are Khulumani's plaintiffs. This makes things all the more complicated, because it blurs the lines between justice and morality. Something can look wrong and nevertheless be necessary. This suggests that there are times when a company is forced to choose the lesser of two evils.
At the end of the meeting with the Daimler lawyer, he tells a story about how black workers at Mercedes' South African plant in East London wanted to give Nelson Mandela a Mercedes after he was released, as a small form of compensation for the things he had been through -- not just any car, but a vehicle in the company's top-of-the-line S Class. They asked management for permission, and they were told: Okay, as long as you build the car in your free time.
Blows to the Head
Mandela got his car. To this day, says the woman from the press office, people accuse Daimler of having tried to buy off Mandela with the car.
According to the written statement, there will be no out-of-court settlement with Daimler. "We want to make that completely clear," says the woman from the press office. It could take another four or five years, and it remains to be seen whether the case will ever go to trial.
All of this is lost on Michael Mbele. He is sitting in his little house in Soweto, watching television, only a few blocks away from Catherine Mlangeni, who lost her son to the letter bomb. Like Mlangeni, Mbele, a thin man with a gray beard, is one of the plaintiffs in the Daimler class action. He will be 66 in October.
He lost his voice, his daughter says.
Mbele raises his fists in the air, indicating blows to his head.
Then he pulls himself out of his seat and hobbles into the next room, his bedroom, and returns holding a folder with a greasy cover. He has done his best to prepare himself for his role as a plaintiff.
He pulls out a letter from Mandela, who thanks Mbele for his testimony before the Truth Commission, and for Mbele's patience. Then he shows us another document, signed by Archbishop Desmond Tutu, which states that Mbele was officially recognized as a victim of human rights violations.
€1.60 for a Day in Prison
Mbele was an active ANC member and spent 12 months in prison. On the one hand, Mbele received 5,705 rand in compensation. On the other hand, he had to feed 10 children, as a man without a job and without a voice.
His compensation, 5,705 rand, was about €570 ($684), or roughly €1.60 for each day in prison.
Of course, he too has heard about the $400 billion in damages supposedly being sought in this lawsuit. What would he do if he ever received money from the companies being sued?
Mbele points to the corrugated metal roof of his little house, the dirty walls and his grandchildren playing outside in the dirt.
Then he rolls his eyes and laughs.