Swiss admission of supporting Apartheid

The Swiss government has acknowledged that its refusal to impose sanctions on apartheid South Africa 15 years ago was indefensible.

The Swiss government inter-departmental working group report on Swiss-Apartheid relations was released on 1 October. It has fuelled a major public debate about the role of both banks and the government in supporting the apartheid regime, and raised the profile of the issue of Swiss loans to prop up the apartheid state.

As result of campaigning by Swiss and South African campaigners, the report included an examination of the issue of apartheid debt. But the report denies that the Swiss government has a responsibility for taking a lead to cancel apartheid debt and start reparations to the people of Southern Africa. It insists that South African debts were only owed to private Swiss banks and not the Swiss government. This is despite the fact the Swiss banks justify their actions by referring to the prevailing political conditions of Swiss-Apartheid relations at that time.

The apartheid debt is estimated to be between $18 billion and $26bn, owed mainly to private banks in four creditor countries: Switzerland, Germany, the United Kingdom, and the United States. About two-thirds of this private bank debt was guaranteed by the South African government. Jubilee 2000 identifies it as an “odious debt” because it was incurred by an illegitimate regime for the oppression of the people of South Africa and the destabilisation of its neighbouring states. In addition, Jubilee 2000 has called for the cancellation of more than $27 billion in “apartheid-caused debt” owed by the neighbouring states; this is money these countries had to borrow (generally from sympathetic governments and the IMF and World Bank) to defend against apartheid destabilisation and repaid the massive damage caused.

The South African Jubilee 2000 campaign points to the key role played by a former president of the Swiss National Bank, Fritz Leutwiler, in rescuing and extending the life of the apartheid regime by favourably rescheduling its foreign debt between 1985 and 1989. At that time the ANC publicly condemned the banks’ role in rescheduling the debt as an act of inhumanity. The ANC said that “when the time comes, the South African people will not be unmindful of the role of banks in making profit out of the misery of our people”. South Africa Jubilee 2000 also recently released statistics showing Swiss direct investment between 1986 and 1991 increased by 50%, at a time when global disinvestment campaigns caused massive decreases in direct investment by other countries during the same period.

An MP in Swiss parliament on the release of the report asked: “Does the Federal Council consider standing up to their political responsibility to grant the South African society reparation payments as a way of compensation for the years of support Switzerland gave the apartheid regime? Does the Federal Council envisage this possibility?”

Couchepin Pascal, Swiss Minister of Economic Affairs, responded: “The Federal Council has not received any demand in this respect and does not see any reason why we should forsee any demand in this respect, in view of what has been said in the report.”

George Dor, publicity officer for Jubilee 2000 South Africa welcomed the report as a first step, but criticised the Swiss Government for passing the buck over the issue of apartheid debt and reparations. “We condemn the way the blame and responsibility is being passed back and forth. Private corporations operate within the framework of the political legitimacy and authority of a government. That is why we elect leaders. Jubilee 2000 says: Don’t pass the buck. The Swiss government must take its responsibility: facilitate the scrapping of the apartheid debt now, and make reparations to the people of Southern Africa.”

The issue of apartheid debt is likely to run and run. The Swiss government report recommends further investigation and a separate report on Swiss secret service and military relations with the apartheid regime has been commissioned. There is also a probe underway into the activities of Wouter Basson who is known to have travelled to Switzerland frequently while head of the chemical and biological warfare programme from the mid-1980s to 1994.

Jubilee 2000 South Africa has also appealed to its own government to provide more information on apartheid’s creditors – both domestic and foreign.

Jubilee 2000 UK, October 14, 1999

Categories: Africa, Odious Debts, South Africa

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