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Swiss keep South Africa archives locked away

A supporter in Pretoria shouts "Viva Mandela!" An entire country has paid tribute to its deceased former leader Reuters

Almost 25 years after the end of South Africa’s apartheid regime, the Swiss authorities continue to maintain a partial embargo over official archive records on its relations with the African nation. The embargo was confirmed a week before the death of Nelson Mandela in response to a call by a parliamentarian.

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.

“Shameful! Censoring the truth is dishonourable and anti-democratic.” Social Democrat senator Paul Rechsteiner was not mincing his words over the cabinet’s recent refusal to open up Switzerland’s archives on South Africa. But the news was not that unusual as the Swiss authorities have been giving the same reply for the past ten years.

Their reply is linked to a collective claim filed on June 19, 2002, by New York lawyer Ed Fagan against a number of banks, including UBS and Credit Suisse, on behalf of victims of apartheid, which was subsequently extended to other Swiss firms. On July 16, 2003, the Swiss government decided to temporarily restrict access to official archives. While archives are normally only made available after 30 years, all matters concerning exports of capital and merchandise to South Africa have been subject to an embargo since January 1, 1960.

The official justification was that if a Swiss firm found itself on trial in the United States it should not be penalised “due to a liberal practice in Switzerland regarding access to archives”. Although no Swiss firms have been directly concerned by a collective claim in the US since 2009, this was the argument Swiss Finance Minister Eveline Widmer-Schlumpf gave Rechsteiner in November.


“This position dates back to former finance ministers Kaspar Villiger and Hans-Rudolf Merz. It’s unbelievable that Widmer-Schlumpf still defends it today,” replied the senator. “In its condolence message following the death of Nelson Mandela, the Swiss government underscored the former president’s reconciliation skills. But the basis for this reconciliation was South Africa’s Commission for Truth and Reconciliation. Truth is the condition for reconciliation.”

Despite the cabinet’s reply, Jacqueline Fehr, a fellow Social Democrat, is preparing to lodge a new formal question in the House of Representatives on the same issue: “I think that with Mandela’s death the situation has changed. It’s a good time to act, as there is tremendous pressure on the cabinet. It can no longer react the same way as it did to previous parliamentary questions.”

Her colleague Carlo Sommaruga thinks parliament should intervene to change the law concerning access to archives. But he is under no illusions: “This kind of proposal would not gain a majority. This is one of the multiple expressions of the banking secrecy syndrome where Switzerland will not move unless someone comes along and kicks its butt.”

Sommaruga would also like to see victims of apartheid receive reparation: “It’s surprising that after the Jewish Holocaust funds controversy Switzerland has not anticipated this latest development with South Africa.”

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.”

Reduced report

Relations between Switzerland and the South African apartheid regime were the subject of a major national study in Switzerland in 2005 (see infobox).

Unfortunately for the historians, access to archives was restricted after only nine months into their research work. The result was a shortened report – 300 pages, with only 50 pages covering with the crucial period from the 1970s to the 1990s.

On top of this restricted access to public archives, private firms have generally refused to talk to the researchers.

“For the Bergier Commission on relations between Switzerland and Nazi Germany, the government passed a decree forcing everyone to open up their archives and lift banking and business secrecy. It was a unique case in Swiss history and of course it was not repeated for us,” explained historian Sébastien Guex.

His colleague Sandra Bott, who worked on the national study for her PhD, said Swiss firms and associations closely stuck to government rules from 2003 onwards.

Thomas Pletscher, a director at the Swiss business federation economiesuisse, confirmed this: “Documents belonging to Vorort [a precursor of the Swiss Business Federation] were placed at the contemporary history archives at Zurich’s Federal Institute of Technology and the same rules apply there as for federal archives.”

“Honestly, I don’t think you’ll find anything surprising in them for the simple reason that nothing problematic happened at that time with the direct or indirect involvement of Vorort,” said Pletscher.

Guex, who had access to the Vorort archives, agreed there was “very little to extract from them”.

All that remain are the archives of private firms or associations from different sectors, like banking. But Pletscher is unconvinced there are any hidden treasures in those either.

“Don’t forget that Swiss law only obliges firms to keep accounting documents for ten years. This doesn’t apply to correspondence, travel reports, projects or other documents. And practices vary a great deal from company to company,” he noted, adding that during mergers, like those that led to the creation of Novartis or the UBS bank, archives are often lost.

No bitterness

Pletscher recalled that when Mandela was freed from prison he thanked Switzerland and its economy.


Switzerland was also one of the first destinations the future South African president chose as a free man. As former foreign trade secretary Franz Blankart told in 2010, “Switzerland’s non-participation in international sanctions did not bother Mandela as he needed an economy that functioned and not a weak one”.

Swiss human rights expert Jean Ziegler underlined this political realism in a recent interview in the SonntagsZeitung newspaper.

“He was never critical of Switzerland’s role,” said the former United Nations food envoy. “This was for one simple reason. Mandela knew that he was going to become head of state and that he would need the Swiss financial system. He never presented any requests for compensation, which must have weighed on him, especially as Switzerland never apologized. But he was a great statesman who also knew how to make concessions.”

(Translated from French by Simon Bradley)

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR