The core allegation is that the corporations actively and willingly collaborated with the South African government to perpetuate the repressive, race-based system of apartheid.
The corporations deny the charge and are urging the courts to dismiss the case.
"None of the plaintiffs' many complaints and amended complaints alleges that [the companies] took specific steps for the purpose of furthering apartheid," wrote lawyer Francis Barron in his brief on behalf of the corporations.
He said the companies are being sued for merely doing business in South Africa at a time when the United States and other nations encouraged a policy of commercial engagement with South Africa.
Apartheid was dismantled in a series of steps from 1990 to 1994 and replaced by an elected, democratic government.
The legal action runs counter to the approach adopted by South Africa's new government to deal with the country's violent and controversial past. The new government embraced a process of "reconciliation and reconstruction," rather than a version of victors' justice.
Mr. Barron's brief quotes South Africa's Minister of Education saying: "South Africa must settle this issue for itself and does not need the help of ambulance chasers."