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JOHANNESBURG — South Africa on Thursday dropped its opposition to a lawsuit by a human rights group seeking apartheid reparations from US companies, giving a boost to the case.

Justice Minister Jeff Radebe wrote an open letter to a federal judge in New York saying the government would not oppose the litigation, reversing a decision taken in 2003 by ex-president Thabo Mbeki.

At the time South Africa opposed rights group Khulumani’s legal action for fears of discouraging foreign investment.

“The support is very important,” Khulumani director Marjorie Jobson told AFP.

“The government can see that there is sufficient proof that the claims are based on aiding and abetting very serious crimes committed in violation of international law,” she said.

The companies used the government’s previous stance as their main argument against the litigation.

“They (companies) can longer say that your government doesn’t even support you,” she said.

Charles Abrahams, Khulumani’s attorney, said the government’s change opened the the way for a settlement in the case.

“The letter of the minister of justice is not only legally the right thing to do, but also paves the way for the plaintiffs and defendant corporations to get together… and bring this matter to a resolution,” he said.

In April victims of South Africa’s apartheid government won the right to sue General Motors, IBM and other multi-national corporations for complicity in human rights abuses.

That decision came more than six years after victims’ groups first began litigation against the string of auto makers, computer giants and banks who allegedly aided the South African government in its violent repression of blacks.

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