Ambassador to Switzerland cool on class action suit

South Africa’s ambassador to Switzerland on Sunday distanced her government from a class action lawsuit seeking to win compensation from Swiss banks for those who suffered during apartheid.

In an interview with a Swiss newspaper, Nozipho January-Bardill said the lawsuit, filed last week, took the South African government unawares as it had not been consulted by any of the lawyers involved.

“Everybody was surprised when the lawsuit was announced, including my government,” January-Bardill told the NZZ am Sonntag newspaper.

“We have never supported this type of class action suit,” she was quoted as saying.

The suit was filed by a group of lawyers in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, seeking to follow a precedent established in litigation on behalf of Holocaust victims, who gained a dlrs 1.25 billion settlement from Swiss banks and corporations.

The apartheid lawsuit seeks billions of dollars in damages from as many as 100 corporations, including Citigroup – the largest financial institution in the United States – and Swiss banking giants UBS and Credit Suisse.

The Swiss banks stand accused of hiding behind Swiss neutrality and undermining a U.N. embargo between 1985 and 1993 by helping the white-dominated regime with loans and other business deals worth billions of dollars as foreign capital fled the country.

One of the lawyers involved is New-York based Ed Fagan, who was at the fore of the Holocaust suit. He hopes hundreds of thousands of South Africans will join the suit.

January-Bardill told the newspaper that the government hoped economic relations with Switzerland would not suffer because of the lawsuit, although it was a potential risk.

About 300 Swiss firms have investments worth some 10 billion Swiss francs (dlrs 6.2 billion) in South Africa, making it the fifth most important foreign investor.

“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, based in the Swiss capital Berne.

January-Bardill said her government had little sympathy for calls that Switzerland and other foreign countries should forgive 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 stay creditworthy in the future,” she said.

Like most South African government representatives, January-Bardill also suffered deeply from the oppressive web of racist laws starting in 1948 that classified all South Africans by race and stripped even the most basic rights from those who were not white.

“I can’t forget my past,” she told the newspaper. “It’s part of me and I cannot undo it.”

“But I do have control over my current life and that tells me that we should not continue to be victims of the past otherwise the burden becomes too heavy.”

Credit Suisse has said it saw no grounds for the lawsuit and said the company should not be held responsible for apartheid’s crimes. Other banks have withheld comment until they saw the lawsuit.

Swiss government officials indicated that the matter would be discussed at the weekly meeting of the seven-member cabinet on Wednesday. In the meantime they have refused to comment.

South African President Thabo Mbeki is due to visit Switzerland next year on a state visit.

South African Press Association, June 23, 2002

Categories: Africa, Odious Debts, South Africa

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