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Repair and Contrast

South Africa's apartheid aftermath doesn't bode well for U.S. slavery reparations movement

"It is possible," said Biko Agozino, a criminology professor at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, that classified ads in the pre-1830 Pittsburgh Gazette touting the sale of slaves could create a local case for reparations for blacks.

Agozino and veteran activist Dennis Brutus of the University of Pittsburgh's Africana Studies department were featured speakers recently at the Azania Heritage International's second annual forum on slavery reparations in the Hill District. Both see the issue from what Agozino called a "reparative criminology perspective," charging that the Mid-Atlantic slave trade and racial discrimination were crimes against humanity, and hence the legal basis for an international reparations case.

The call for reparations is not recent, Agozino said, pointing to a list of individuals and organizations who've made pleas for various forms of reparative closure since 1867 -- a time when blacks weren't allowed to take their cases to court because they were not legal citizens.

Today, the call for reparations in the United States is being led by NCOBRA, which is trying to pursue court cases against multinational corporations who received a financial boost from slavery, including tobacco firms, insurance companies and newspapers.

Calls for reparations for other injustices against blacks have not met with success, noted Brutus, who works in South Africa with the Jubilee South Africa campaign, which addresses scars left over from apartheid. The Truth and Reconciliation Act passed by the South African government to deal with apartheid crimes calls for testimony, amnesty and reparations. But somehow the reparations element "got lost," said Brutus. TRA recommendations that apartheid's victims receive an immediate monetary award plus a lifetime pension were dismissed; victims even lost the right to take their reparations case to court.

Even "the president of South Africa said he was now opposed to filing for reparations because he didn't want to scare off Citibank, Fleet Bank and the other major corporations investing in South Africa," said Brutus.

As for seeking reparations from the Pittsburgh Gazette's successor, the Post-Gazette, "with lawsuits and lobbying power we could put pressure on the owners of that paper for some form of reparations," said Agozino. But should the P-G, for example, set aside even a billion dollars for scholarships for blacks, "there is no amount of money or punishment that would be enough to adequately address these crimes."

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