Swiss lift restrictions on South Africa archives

Former South African President Nelson Mandela was welcomed by the Swiss anti-apartheid movement in Geneva in 1990 Keystone

The Swiss government has lifted access restrictions on official archive records of economic dealings with South Africa’s apartheid regime. The Swiss authorities had imposed an archive embargo in 2003 due to legal class actions in the United States.

This content was published on June 20, 2014 - 16:11

Cabinet announced on Friday that it had removed access restrictions to archive files associated with capital and other export transactions with South Africa during the apartheid era.

These were introduced in 2003 to prevent Swiss firms involved in apartheid class actions in the US from “being in a worse position procedurally than foreign companies”, it said in a statement.

The government decided to lift the measure following ‘extensive clarifications’ by federal departments and the Swiss National Bank that showed that the risks for Swiss companies had declined considerably.

A collective claim was filed in New York in 2002 against over 20 multinationals and banks, including UBS and Credit Suisse, on behalf of victims of apartheid accusing them of aiding and abetting the South African government in gross human rights violations.

In December 2013, a New York court dismissed the class actions brought against the last two foreign companies. As a consequence, it is “quite unlikely that Swiss companies will be involved in these class actions again”, the statement went on.

Switzerland condemned the Pretoria regime in 1968, introduced an arms embargo in 1963 and limited investment in South Africa in 1974, but private business continued to prosper there until the end of the 1980s (see infobox).

Politicians and civil society had criticised the Swiss authorities for repeatedly refusing to fully open up Switzerland’s archives on its dealings with the South African apartheid regime.

Swiss study

Swiss-South African relations covering the period 1945-1990 were the subject of a 2005 report by the Swiss National Science Foundation’s National Research Programme. Here are some extracts:

“Research was seriously affected in both its form and content by the particular conditions under which it was carried out. We were given extremely limited access in both Switzerland and South Africa to archive material from 1970 onwards, in particular that of a financial nature.”

“Switzerland held continued and close relations with South Africa during the entire period when the National Party institutionalised and then reinforced the apartheid system. Ties were particularly close in export capital and the trade in South African gold.”

“Foreign firms divested from South Africa during the second half of the 1980s and Swiss firms followed this trend but to a lesser degree. The period in which international sanctions against the apartheid regime were the tightest was when Swiss investments in South African were strengthened.”

“During the period of political isolation of the South African regime – from 1960 to the middle of the 1980s – Switzerland’s conciliatory position, which morally condemned apartheid but refused to adhere to sanctions, strengthened South African  leaders’ and businessmen’s trust in their Swiss partners.”

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