Excellency, since the days of William Tell, your country has a history of standing by democratic institutions. What is the Swiss stance towards the resurgence of South Africa after the years of oppression under Apartheid?
Switzerland is often referred to as the oldest democracy in the world. The people still vote four times a year on issues in Switzerland. You can imagine then that for us, the day Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa was actually also a moment of celebration and joy in Switzerland. Switzerland contributed to the transition in many ways. To name a few examples, we sent a group of Swiss people to observe the election is South Africa to make sure that these elections were free and fair. Secondly, we came into South Africa with a transitional aid program that had finished by the end of 2015. Whenever we can play a role to promote the democratic model, we find a lot of enthusiasm and support from Switzerland. I think it’s also important to know that William Tell himself was a revolutionary. At that time in Switzerland, we were a farming nation – most people tend to forget that – but there was a feeling that the rural population of farmers were actually oppressed by nobles and William Tell is a true revolutionary himself.
Switzerland has uniquely divided itself into 26 cantons. These at the same time are divided into three different languages, French, German and Italian. How does this influence, and how would you define Swiss culture?
In truth we did not get divided – Switzerland is a true confederation, and it started with a nucleus of three cantons. Three central areas in Switzerland, after William Tell’s fight for independence and the idea of being your own master, decided to come together. It is not that somebody decided to divide us up on a map. We are in the heart of Europe so there is a lot of cultural influence. We have four official languages, so we are very much like South Africa in that we are a multicultural and multilingual country. If you were to ask me what is a typical Swiss thing, that doesn’t exist. Our typical thing is diversity.
How have bilateral relations with South Africa developed in terms of financial aid, as well as trade and investment of Swiss capital in this country?
The Swiss footprint in South Africa is quite large. Most people are surprised when I talk about this. We are the tenth largest investor in South Africa, being a small country but with a large economy. We have over 100 companies currently operating here. It is difficult to estimate how many jobs creation we have actually contributed but the numbers that I see float somewhere between fifty or sixty thousand South Africans employed through Swiss investment. We are large when it comes to touristic numbers as well, even though again we only have a population of 8 million. But we love to travel, and so I am told by the department of tourism that we rank eleventh, but the trend is that this number is going up. Swiss people love to come to South Africa, and as you know, tourism is an excellent sector for South Africa. It is growing, and it is labour intensive. It creates good jobs, and I think we heavily contribute through tourism as well.
We are the sixth largest donor. Even though our transitional aid program stopped in 2016, we run an economic development program. It is not your traditional co-operation where you fight poverty and try to grant access to health and education, it’s really an economic co-operation. What we are trying to do through our assistance is to try and unlock the great economic potential of South Africa. There are 10,000 Swiss living in the region, which again for us is huge. This is the largest community on African soil. We have a science and technology program in which we train South African entrepreneurs. We also have a business development program. We estimate that 800 or 900 South Africa entrepreneurs have gone through this program. Some have become very successful. There is huge interest both ways between Switzerland and South Africa, and for me, as an ambassador, it is an interesting mandate because it is so broad-based. It is not just about defending Swiss interest but it is a partnership that goes both ways.
The Swiss Federation is renowned for the manufacturing of high-quality chocolates, cheese and clocks. Why do these products stand out, and in what other areas is Switzerland a world leader? Switzerland has been ranked by the World Economic Forum to be the most innovative country. I get asked quite often why Switzerland is such an innovative country, and it’s a rather simple answer. Switzerland is a small country in a mountainous area, there is limited land and agriculture might have to happen on a slope; if you try and dig in Switzerland, you will find nothing. The only commodity that becomes crucial is water, we are the water castle of Europe. But if you look back to when we were a rural society, parents would still have eight or nine children and there is no land to be divided – all the daughters would be married off because there is no space, and then each son in his own term could live off the land. So that pushed people fairly early on to cities and into factories, into learning a trade. Some migrated (many came here to the southern African region). So for us, there was no other option than to be innovative, and also to be open to migrants.
The watch industry, actually, we kind of inherited from the French.
The Huguenots were very good at watchmaking. Since they had no home in France any longer they came to Franschhoek, in Cape Town in the Western Cape region, but also came to Switzerland and brought the watch-making trade with them into Switzerland, where it was then refined. So for us, innovation was a matter of survival. There are numerous other examples. Switzerland has registered more patents per capita than any other country. Some of the innovations I don’t understand. It goes beyond cheese, chocolates and watches – which are important because this is part of our cultural identity – but we have moved on to the high tech space. Living in Switzerland is expensive, but Swiss wages are high, or among the highest in the world. We usually cannot compete on price, and we cannot compete on quantity, so Switzerland will never flood the southern African market with cheap goods in huge quantities. Our niche, and I think it is important that countries find their niche, is the high end, high-precision, well-done products.
The breathtaking views of not only the Swiss Alps but also the country’s various lakes are landmarks that attract tourists from all over the world. What sites do you recommend South African visitors see when travelling to Switzerland?
Now I’m going to get into trouble because I’ve just explained that Switzerland is a confederation and I’m here to support all the regions, but you’ll allow me to start with my home canton, the canton of Lucerne. Lucerne is one of the most visited towns in Switzerland; it is right on the lake close to the mountains, which carry snow all year round. Lucerne is also in the heart of Europe, and it’s easy to do day trips up the mountain or visit some of our famous cities. As a UNESCO protected world heritage site, the old town of Bern is the most preserved medieval town in Europe, and it’s absolutely stunning.
But going to Switzerland, you have to go up the mountains – this is what we’re known for. You could also follow President Ramaphosa’s steps and go to Davos. If you’re a bit more adventurous you can ski down the slopes of Davos.
The thing about Switzerland is that it is miniature, so you have everything in one spot. You can easily swim in the lakes in the morning and then later go up the mountain and experience something very different; you can be in the remote valleys of Jura, close to the French border, and feel like time has stood still, and then with a short train ride go to the very bustling, international city of Geneva on the same day.
I would recommend that you use our public train system – that even goes up the mountain. It is timed like clockwork, we could actually adjust our watches to the train. There is art, there is history, we have become ‘foodies’ so you can eat well in Switzerland. And since we’re in the heart of Europe, it’s very easy to visit our neighbouring countries – we’re not jealous, we share.
Excellency, thank you.