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Historians face wall of silence over Swiss-Apartheid links

The shadow of a woman collecting water from a tap in a squatter camp outside Johannesburg

(Keystone)

A research programme into Switzerland's relationship with South Africa during the apartheid era is making little progress, according to the project leader.

The main stumbling block has been Swiss companies' reluctance to open their archives to scrutiny.

The federally funded project is supposed to cover everything from foreign policy to the effectiveness of sanctions against the apartheid regime, and historians have been studying the relationship between the two countries since last autumn.

The government gave the mandate to the Swiss National Science Foundation in May 2000.

It chose the Foundation to investigate the relationship because parliament refused to set up an independent commission, which would have assured historians access to private archives.

The investigation is scheduled to finish next year, and a full report is expected in 2004. At the halfway stage, though, the results are not looking promising.

"So far, we haven't been able to find anything of interest," said project leader, Georg Kreis. "Because of this, we cannot draw any conclusions."

"Better than nothing"

He said the lack of information available meant the project had had to limit its scope and work within tight restrictions. "Still, it's better than nothing," he added.

The researchers have come up against a brick wall when it comes to dealing with businesses active in South Africa during apartheid.

In January 2001, the Kreis's group send letters to the association for Swiss business, economiesuisse, and the Swiss Bankers' Association requesting access to their archives. The request received no response.

Thomas Pletscher of economiesuisse told swissinfo that access to strategic documents concerning Swiss business policy towards South Africa was not possible.

He said some documentation could be made available, but that the researchers' request for access was not precise enough, and so could not be acted on.

Pletscher added that much had been published about Swiss-South Africa relations since the end of apartheid, and he saw no reason to revisit the archives.

He said, for the record, that the archives showed that Swiss business had consistently made clear their disapproval of apartheid.

The two associations deny ever receiving such requests. Thomas Pletscher of economiesuisse said recently that Swiss banks could not cooperate with the investigation because the threat of legal action was hanging over them.

The Bankers Association has said that in principle it will give the researchers access to its archives, provided they do not reveal the contents for 30 years - the period of confidentiality under Swiss law.

Nestlé keeps quiet

Two Swiss multinationals, Nestlé and Holcim, both active in South Africa during the apartheid era, have also refused to open their archives.

In an interview with swissinfo in February 2001, Holcim's former vice-chairman, Anton Schrafl, said the company would be willing to open the files, but the company has since changed its mind.

Kreis told swissinfo the promise was made when companies were under heavy pressure to admit their links with the apartheid regime. Now that the pressure has eased, he says, Holcim is refusing to cooperate.

By contrast, the team has had little difficulty getting information from South Africa. Indeed, researchers from both countries have visited each other and exchanged information.

Kreis said he was not in a position to make public the findings until the project was officially concluded next year.

Political pressure

Still, the issue of Switzerland's relationship with South Africa is far from dead politically speaking, despite the difficulties the researchers have faced so far.

Parliament will have to vote again on whether to set up an independent commission, along the lines of the one that recently looked into Switzerland's wartime past.

"If the idea of a commission is accepted, all public and private archives will be open to historical review," said Social Democrat representative Nils de Dardel.

"Switzerland owes the South African population," he told swissinfo. "Our country and the financial sector played an important role in supporting the apartheid regime until the end."

swissinfo, Jean-Michel Berthoud

Key facts

Historians have been studying the relationship between the two countries since last autumn.
They say businesses active in Apartheid South Africa have not been cooperative.
A full report is expected in 2004.

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