Tabitha Paine | Lee-Ann Bruce
Without the help of European banks, the apartheid government would not have been able to buy arms and continue its campaign of violence and oppression. Between 1977 and 1994, countless people lost their lives while the banks essentially profited from their deaths. What can be done to hold the banks accountable for their role in supporting apartheid? For the past 12 months, Open Secrets and CALS have pursued justice in Europe, only to find that some of these banks have infiltrated the very mechanisms meant to investigate them.
In the late 1970s, the apartheid regime was doing everything in its power to maintain its rule by fear and by force — waging war everywhere from the streets of the townships to the borders of neighbouring states.
Images of 13-year-old Hector Pieterson’s lifeless body, and reports of Steve Biko being beaten and left to die naked in a police cell, were typical examples of the state-sponsored violence of the time. News of these incidents sparked a renewed outrage around the world and prompted the international community to intensify its response to apartheid.
In 1977, the United Nations Security Council introduced mandatory arms sanctions against South Africa. The point was obvious: Isolate the apartheid regime and cut off its supply of weapons. No weapons, no violence. No violence, no way to control the people, no regime. Unfortunately, like oppressive regimes the world over, the apartheid government was never quite so friendless and alone.
One of their most openly vocal supporters was a Belgian politician and businessman named André Vlerick. Vlerick was both a high-ranking executive at Kredietbank and one-time Belgian minister of finance. He was also the founder of several organisations based in Europe which produced pro-apartheid propaganda and received funding from the apartheid government for these efforts. Even more sinister than his open admiration of apartheid was the support his banks offered the regime behind closed doors.
Both Kredietbank and its sister bank in Luxembourg stand accused of knowingly assisting the apartheid government to buy arms and smuggle the equivalent of half a trillion rand out of the country illegally through one of the most complex money-laundering systems at the time.
In fact, evidence collected over years of extensive research by Apartheid Guns and Money author Hennie van Vuuren, suggests that these banks are responsible for up to 70% of the transactions used to buy weapons and further militarise the apartheid state during the two decades that the UN arms sanctions were in place.
To be clear, the banks were not only actively involved in supporting and sustaining a violent, racist regime, they were also more than willing to profit from it. During this time, Kredietbank grew from a relatively small bank to one of Europe’s largest. Today, operating under the name KBC Group, it is one of the top 250 public companies in the world measured by turnover.
It is a business that was built, at least in part, on supporting apartheid — on fees collected from facilitating illegal arms transactions that allowed the apartheid government to continue its campaign of systemic and structural violence and oppression.
It is a business that not only turned a blind eye to the assassinations of struggle heroes and the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent people during the Border War, but indirectly profited from them.
It is a business that continues to thrive off these profits while millions of South Africans still live with apartheid’s legacy of poverty and inequality.
Until 2018, the banks had never been called to account for the pivotal role they played during apartheid. Using the evidence collected for Apartheid Guns and Money, Open Secrets and its lawyers at Wits University’s Centre for Applied Legal Studies decided to change that.