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Bilateral relations between Switzerland and South Africa

Switzerland and South Africa enjoy intense relations across a range of areas, in addition to which South Africa is one of Switzerland’s strategic partner countries. South Africa is also Switzerland’s most important trading partner on the African continent, the focus of its research cooperation and a priority country for economic development cooperation.

Key aspects of diplomatic relations

In March 2008, a Memorandum of Understanding designed to develop cooperation between the two countries was signed in Geneva. It promotes cooperation in the fields of politics, business, peace building, education, science and culture. Since the Memorandum was signed, high-level consultations, at which new projects and the focus for bilateral cooperation are discussed, have taken place annually.

At the multilateral level the regional economic organisation “South African Development Community (SADC)” is a central element of cooperation with South Africa, in particular with regard to the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC) regional development cooperation.

Economic cooperation

South Africa is Switzerland’s most important trading partner on the African continent. In 2011, the volume of bilateral trade reached approximately 2.1 billion CHF, with imports from South Africa rising by around 75% to 1.32 bn. CHF due to a doubling of platinum imports, and a moderate rise in exports to 0.8 bn. CHF. Switzerland imports predominantly precious metals, whilst South Africa purchases chemicals, machinery, precision instruments and watches. In 2010, Switzerland was the sixth largest foreign investor in South Africa with an investment volume of 3.77 billion CHF.

More than 100 Swiss companies have subsidiaries or production facilities in South Africa and employ around 36,000 people. The Swiss embassy in Pretoria is combined with a Swiss Business Hub to promote trade and investment.

Cooperation in the domain of education

In 2007, the two countries concluded an agreement regarding scientific and technological cooperation. This makes South Africa one of the eight countries outside Europe with whom Switzerland is deepening its research cooperation through targeted programmes.

In the first phase of the programme from 2008–2012 Switzerland invested CHF 7.8 million in a total of 16 joint research projects. Research is being conducted in the areas of public health and biomedicine, bio- and nanotechnology as well as in the arts and social sciences. In the second phase of the programme from 2013–2017 the focus of research will be on renewable energy (cleantech and greentech).

Scholars and artists from South Africa can apply to the State Secretariat Education, Research and Innovation (SERI) for Swiss Government Excellence Scholarships. Thanks to trainee agreements young South African professionals can live and work in Switzerland to broaden their professional and language skills.

Development cooperation and humanitarian aid

The SDC has been supporting southern Africa through its regional programme since 2005.

  • HIV/AIDS-projects
  • management of natural resources
  • governance

The Swiss-South African Cooperation Initiative (SSACI) in the area of vocational training and the Small Claim Court Programme in the area of justice are amongst the projects specific to South Africa.

The State Secretariat for Economics (SECO) has chosen South Africa as a priority country for economic development and is focusing on three themes:

  • promotion of a competitive and sustainable economy 
    strengthening South Africa as a regional centre for trade and knowledge transfer in key economic areas
  • the areas of energy efficiency and climate change
Swiss nationals in South Africa

At the end of 2012, there were 9,260 Swiss nationals resident in South Africa, predominantly in the country’s key economic regions of Gauteng and Western Cape.

Cultural exchanges

Switzerland and South Africa maintain a lively cultural exchange, primarily in the areas of music and dance, which is often sponsored by private partners. Pro Helvetia is represented by a liaison office in South Africa; this moved from Cape Town to Johannesburg in 2012.

History of bilateral relations

The first Swiss immigrants, mainly farmers, reached the former Cape Colony as early as the 18th century, and set up a number of missions (Basel, Vaud, Paris missions), as well as the first schools and hospitals in rural areas, such as Limpopo to take one example. From the 19th century onwards they were joined by Swiss businessmen, craftsmen, innkeepers and engineers. In the 1950s South Africa became the most popular destination for Swiss emigrants on the African continent. In the 20th century many large Swiss companies established subsidiaries or representations in South Africa.

As a result of international sanctions against the apartheid regime, which Switzerland did not participate in, the Federal Council decided to take measures to ensure that Switzerland was not used as a centre to circumvent these sanctions.

The SDC was already funding projects during the final stage of the apartheid regime at the beginning of the 1990s, and contributed to efforts to make the transition to the new political system as non-violent as possible. Switzerland supported the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, TRC.