Bilateral relations

Switzerland and South Africa have diverse and close relations. South Africa is a strategic partner country of Switzerland and is one of Switzerland's most important economic partners on the African continent. Priorities of cooperation are economic development as well as science and research.

Key aspects of diplomatic relations

In March 2008, the two countries signed a memorandum of understanding in Geneva on expanding cooperation, in particular to promote cooperation in politics, business, development, peace promotion, education and training, science and culture. Since then high-level consultations between the two countries take place annually at which the priorities of their bilateral and multilateral cooperation, as well as new projects, are discussed.

In the multilateral field, the regional economic organisation, the Southern African Development Community, is a fundamental element for cooperation with South Africa, in particular with regard to the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation's regional development cooperation.

Southern African Development Community
Treaty database

Economic cooperation

South Africa is one of Switzerland's most important economic partners on the African continent. The bilateral trade volume reached approximately CHF 1.3 billion in 2014. Switzerland primarily imported precious metals, in particular platinum, while South Africa imports pharmaceuticals, machines, precision instruments and watches. In 2014, Switzerland was the seventh-largest foreign investor in South Africa. South Africa receives more tourists from Switzerland than from any other European country.

More than 100 Swiss companies have subsidiaries or production sites in South Africa, creating approximately 33,000 jobs. A Swiss Business Hub for promoting trade and investment is integrated in the Swiss embassy in Pretoria.

Trade promotion, Switzerland Global Enterprise
Swiss Cham Southern Africa

Cooperation in education, research and innovation

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

In the first phase of the programme, from 2008 to 2012, Switzerland invested approximately CHF 7.8 million in 16 joint research projects. Research was conducted in the fields of public health and biomedicine, biotechnology and nanotechnology as well as in the humanities and social sciences. A new research priority for the second phase of the programme, from 2013 to 2017, is renewable energies (cleantech and greentech).

Researchers and artists from South Africa can apply for Swiss Government Excellence Scholarships to the State Secretariat for Education Research and Innovation (SERI). Thanks to the so-called trainee agreements, young professionals have the opportunity to expand their professional experience and knowledge of foreign languages in Switzerland.

Swiss Government Excellence Scholarships
Trainee exchange agreements

Development cooperation and humanitarian aid

Since 2005, the SDC has been involved in a regional programme for southern Africa. The project focuses on the following:

  • HIV/AIDS projects
  • Management of natural resources

The Swiss-South African Cooperation Initiative (SSACI) in the field of vocational education and training and the Small Claim Courts programme in the field of justice are among specific South-African projects where Swiss funding will end in 2014/2015. The projects will be continued by the South African education and justice ministries respectively.

The State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) has selected South Africa as a priority country for economic development and focuses on the following three themes:

  1. The development of a competitive, integrated economy
  2. Strengthening South Africa as a regional hub for key areas related to trade and the knowledge economy
  3. Energy efficiency and climate change

Swiss-South African Cooperation Initiative
SDC: Development cooperation and humanitarian aid
SECO: Economic cooperation and development

Swiss nationals in South Africa

At the end of 2015, there were 9,293 Swiss nationals living in South Africa, primarily in the two economically strongest provinces of Gauteng and Western Cape.

Cultural exchanges

Switzerland and southern Africa maintain lively cultural exchanges, mainly in music and dance. Private partners are often involved. Pro Helvetia has a representation in South Africa which moved its head office from Cape Town to Johannesburg in 2012.

History of bilateral relations

The SDC was already active in South Africa during the final stage of the apartheid regime at the beginning of the 1990s, contributing 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.

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.

In the 20th century many large Swiss companies established subsidiaries or representations in South Africa. From the 19th century Swiss businessmen, craftsmen, restaurateurs and engineers emigrated to South Africa. In the 1950s South Africa became the most popular destination for Swiss emigrants on the African continent.

The first Swiss migrants, mainly farmers, reached the former Cape Colony as early as the 18th century.  At the same time, various missionaries (Basel, Vaud, Paris missions), established first schools and hospitals in rural areas, such as those in Limpopo for example.

Truth and Reconciliation Commission
Entry in the Historical Dictionary of Switzerland: South Africa (de, fri, it)