Two of the world's most powerful oil giants, Shell and British Petroleum (BP), have failed to join other major corporations testifying about the links between big business and the former apartheid regime.

South Africa's Truth and Reconciliation Commission probing apartheid-era crimes will hold hearings next week into the role of large corporations in supporting the white-minority state, but the multi-nationals BP and Shell will not be appearing.

The oil industry was allowed by successive apartheid governments to conduct its business under strict secrecy to ensure a steady supply of fuel into South Africa, when the white-minority regime was embargoed by the UN and other international groups.

Eight oil companies operate in South Africa under nine brand names. Four refineries process imported crude oil.

Johannesburg's weekly Mail and Guardian reported Friday that Shell, which "allegedly played a crucial role in shoring up the apartheid state by ensuring oil got through to South Africa, has failed to account for itself."

Only in the final years of apartheid rule were the public allowed to glimpse the regime's top-secret massive state oil storage facilities at Saldanah in the Western Cape province.

Truth commissioner Faizel Randera told AFP that he approached a BP director and held discussions with Shell about one month ago to request they make submissions.

Neither company responded to the request in the time allotted, he said.

"We would have preferred for one of the major oil companies to speak," Randera said, adding the commission might have "left it a bit late."

BP representative Carlo Germishuys said "whatever the speculative position is, we are, I know, considering" a submission to the panel, which has heard testimony from the media, judiciary and other major sectors of South African society.

Koosum Kalyan, Shell's spokesman, said in a statment to AFP that "if required" the company will make a submission before December 14, the commission's deadline for written documents.

Unlike next week's hearings, any such submissions, however, would be for the record but would not be made public.

The truth commission "confirmed that Shell South Africa will not be called to attend the special hearings on business," the statement added.

South Africa became a democratic state in the historic 1994 all-race elections which launched President Nelson Mandela's African National Congress to power.

The commission will hear from an array of powerful businesses next week, including the mining conglomerate Anglo American and arms manufacturer Armscor, but the ommission of any submissions from oil companies has been seen as glaring.

Energy ministry advisor Thulani Gcqbashe said the department was not concerned whether BP or Shell made submissions to the truth commission.

"Life is moving on. I'm not wasting my time re-opening old wounds," Gcqbashe said.

South African Press Association, 1997
This text is for information only and may not be published or reprinted without the permission of the South African Press Association