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Legal action over Swiss apartheid relations gets closer

Swiss banks may face legal action over their relations with the former apartheid regime in South Africa


Switzerland's banks and some of the country's biggest corporations are facing a growing threat of legal action over their relations with the former apartheid regime in South Africa.

The South African branch of the non-governmental organisation, the Jubilee 2000 Coalition, says it is continuing to carry out research about international links to the apartheid system that formally ended in 1994.

Class action suits could involve financial institutions and companies in the United States, Germany and Britain as well as Switzerland.

Its spokesman, Neville Gabriel, told swissinfo that he believes legal proceedings could be launched in autumn.

He said much of the Coalition's research had focussed on western banks' support of the apartheid government and the servicing of its $25 billion foreign debt.

"It's clear to us that the Swiss financial centre served as the single most important facilitator for the apartheid regime to finance itself partly through the gold trade. UBS for example was outstanding in the way it helped South Africa sell gold."

Gabriel said western banks must be held to account and should compensate the victims of the apartheid regime.

The Swiss Bankers' Association (SBA), however, defended the policy of the country's financial institutions.

"It's worth emphasising that Swiss credits at the time didn't go to support apartheid," SBA spokesman James Nason told swissinfo, "but to modernise the economy and support the country's infrastructure."

Swiss corporations are also likely to be named in any legal action. Gabriel said research pointed to the mining of asbestos, forced removals and forced labour as the likely focus of any suits.

The Coalition says many western companies earned huge profits on the backs of the black majority.

The possible launch of legal action against some of Switzerland's best-known banks and companies could embarrass the government just as it hopes the country's image is recovering from the row over Holocaust-era bank accounts.

"It's well known that the Swiss government refused to back economic sanctions against the apartheid regime," said Neville, "and it's important to note this because Swiss banks and corporations say that what they did at the time was no more than what was allowed by the political authorities."

This puts the Swiss government in a uniquely uncomfortable position. The governments of the United States, Britain and Germany all backed sanctions.

Gabriel also accuses the Swiss National Bank of helping to reschedule South Africa's foreign debt in the mid 1980s when many anti-apartheid activists said financial troubles provided a good opportunity for the system to be brought down.

It is not yet clear where the class action suits might be filed nor the amount of compensation that might be demanded but it's certainly likely to run into billions of francs.

by Michael Hollingdale


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