The South African ambassador in Bern has distanced her government from a lawsuit against Swiss banks over their dealings with the Apartheid regime.
In an interview with the Swiss paper, "NZZ am Sonntag", Nozipho January-Bardill said the lawsuit against Credit Suisse and UBS took the South African government by surprise.
"Everybody was surprised when the lawsuit was announced, including my government. We only knew about the Jubilee-2000 campaign, the South African movement that has been seeking compensation for those who suffered during apartheid for years," January-Bardill was quoted as saying.
"We have never supported this type of class action suit," she added.
The suit was filed by a group of lawyers, including US-based lawyer Ed Fagan, on June 19 and seeks to follow a precedent-setting litigation on behalf of Holocaust victims, who received $1.25 billion from Swiss banks and corporations.
January-Bardill told the "NZZ am Sonntag" she hoped economic relations with Switzerland would not suffer because of the lawsuit, pointing out that about 300 Swiss firms had investments worth some SFr10 billion ($6.2billion) in South Africa.
"The lawsuit could have an impact on relations, but we are trying to avoid this by continuing our dialogue with the Swiss," said the ambassador.
She added that her government does not support calls for Switzerland and other foreign countries to write-off South African debts to make up for any support they might have given to the Apartheid regime.
"South Africa has to repay its foreign debts because we want to remain creditworthy in the future," she said.
The two German banks, Dresdner and Deutsche Bank, as well as the US computer company IBM are the next targets of the lawsuits, according to South African attorney Gugulethu Madlanga.
Madlanga, who is also representing the family of the murdered black activist Steve Biko, said he would lead plaintiffs in the latest case.
"We have instructions from the Biko family to pursue their claim against the banks," he told the news agency Reuters.
Meanwhile, Ed Fagan said in an interview with the French-speaking Sunday newspaper "dimanche.ch" that Swiss arms manufacturers would also be confronted with the lawsuit.
Another report in the German-speaking paper "SonntagsZeitung" said more than 1,000 South Africans have called a hotline set up to help other people join the apartheid suit, which was confirmed by Fagan's assistant in Switzerland, Norbert Gschwend.
In his lawsuit, Fagan accuses Credit Suisse, UBS and the American bank Citicorp of providing funds to prop up the Apartheid government between 1985 and 1993.
During this time South Africa was running out of cash because of United Nations sanctions against the regime, but Switzerland was never part of the UN sanctions.
Both Credit Suisse and UBS said they saw no grounds for the lawsuit and said they could not be held responsible for crimes committed by the Apartheid regime.
A spokesman for the Swiss foreign ministry, Ruedi Christen, said the matter was likely to be discussed at the weekly cabinet meeting on Wednesday, but refused to comment any further.
The South African President, Thabo Mbeki, is due to visit Switzerland next year on a state visit.
swissinfo with agencies
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