Switzerland and South Africa have diverse and close relations. South Africa is a strategic partner of Switzerland and has consistently been one of its most important economic partners on the African continent. Priorities of collaboration on a governmental level are economic cooperation as well as education, research and innovation.
Key aspects of diplomatic relations
In March 2008, Switzerland and South Africa signed a memorandum of understanding on expanding cooperation in peace, security and human rights promotion, economics and trade, economic development, migration, education and training, as well as science and culture. Since then, political consultations have been taking place annually between the two countries at Deputy Minister level to discuss ongoing and future cooperation.
Cooperation in financial matters is regulated by a double taxation agreement and an automatic exchange of information agreement. Trade is facilitated through an agreement between the Southern African Customs Union (SACU) and the European Free Trade Association (EFTA).
South Africa is one of Switzerland's most important economic partners on the African continent. The bilateral trade volume reached more than CHF 3.5 billion in 2019. Switzerland primarily imports precious metals, while South Africa imports pharmaceuticals, machines, precision instruments and watches.
More than 100 Swiss companies have subsidiaries or production sites in South Africa, creating approximately 50,000 jobs. A Swiss Business Hub for promoting trade and investment is integrated in the Swiss Embassy in Pretoria.
Cooperation in education, research and innovation
The Agreement on Scientific and Technological Cooperation, signed in 2007 formally established the Swiss-South Africa Joint Research Programme (SSAJRP).
Since then, the SSAJRP has supported 61 joint research projects implemented by the Swiss National Science Foundation (SNSF) and the National Research Foundation (NRF) in clean and green technology, sustainable systems, communicable diseases, non-communicable diseases, big data with a focus on astronomy, social sciences and humanities. Further elevating the bilateral research cooperation, the SNSF and the NRF signed a Lead Agency Agreement in 2020. The Lead Agency process is part of the project funding scheme and is aimed at researchers in Switzerland and South Africa who wish to conduct a cross-border research project.
Joint research collaboration is also encouraged outside of the formalized research projects in the framework of mobility such as professional visits of Swiss and South African researchers.
Researchers and academic students from South Africa can also apply for Swiss Government Excellence Scholarships to the State Secretariat for Education Research and Innovation (SERI).
The Swiss South African Business Development Programme (SSABDP) is the second flagship of the Swiss South African Joint Research Programe. The SSABDP brings together young entrepreneurs from Switzerland and South Africa with the aim of nurturing an innovative spirit and of creating business networks across continents. The visiting startups are called “Swiss/South African Venture Leaders”.
Economic cooperation and development (SECO)
South Africa is a priority country of the economic cooperation and development programme of the Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO). SECO’s overall objective in South Africa is to support inclusive and green growth that will create jobs, ensure resilience and reduce disparities. For the period 2017 to 2020, a total of CHF 55 million has been earmarked for SECO’s activities in South Africa, with a focus on promoting:
- An efficient public sector and good financial governance
- A competitive and inclusive economy that fosters sustainable employment and international value chain integration
- Climate-friendly and green growth through the development of a low-carbon industry
Swiss nationals in South Africa
At the end of 2019, there were 8,403 Swiss nationals living in South Africa, primarily in the two economically strongest provinces of Gauteng and Western Cape. This is by far the biggest Swiss community on African soil, with almost half of the Swiss nationals living on the continent, staying in South Africa.
Switzerland and South Africa maintain lively cultural exchanges, mainly in music and dance. Private partners are often involved. Pro Helvetia has a representation in South Africa located in Johannesburg.
History of bilateral relations
After the arrival of the first Swiss in South Africa, trade relations developed at a rapid pace in the second half of the 19th century.
The first Swiss consulate in South Africa was established shortly after in 1887 in Pretoria, followed by the opening of another one in Cape Town in 1916. The representation in Pretoria was finally upgraded into an Embassy in 1960.
The Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation became 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. During the first democratic elections, Switzerland was present with 100 election observers. Switzerland equally supported the work of the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission, TRC.