Switzerland and apartheid – Fr Albert Nolan OP

This paper was delivered on 9 August 2011



Learning From Our Past


A Theological Response to the
Report on the Approach of the Swiss Catholic Church to Apartheid in South Africa (1970-1990)


Albert Nolan


 I can hardly find words to express how delighted I was to read this
record of the Swiss Catholic Church’s struggle against Switzerland’s support of the apartheid regime in
South Africa.
In the first place because the Church’s role in the struggle is so seldom
recorded and remembered anywhere even in South Africa itself. And in the
second place because of the unique role played by Swiss banks and Swiss industries.
More than any other country in the world Switzerland
propped up the apartheid regime by continuously rolling over South Africa’s bank loans, by continuing to
trade with South Africa and by being a centre for South   Africa’s gold and diamond trade. When most
other countries in the world agreed to boycotts and sanctions against South Africa, Switzerland politely refused to do
so. Hence the crucial importance of the Swiss Church’s struggle to change this injustice.

The report was very informative and the details of your struggle as it developed over the
years were impressive and encouraging. Our response is first and foremost one
of gratitude to all those who were involved, individuals and groups.
Theologically and spiritually it was a magnificent example of courage,
perseverance and hopefulness.

At first sight it might appear as if, in the end, you failed. Neither the banks nor the
industries nor the gold and diamond traders changed their stance. But the
internal and external pressure on the apartheid regime from around the world
and the growing pressure of the Churches worldwide especially on the Swiss
banks and industries forced the apartheid regime to opt for a negotiated
settlement before it was too late.     

 However, what we are dealing with here is unfinished
In South   Africa the struggle continues. “A Luta
Continua” , we say. And in Switzerland the struggle also continues. Because the bottom line in this struggle was, and
still is, money.

In 1988 in his famous sermon in the Jesuit Church in Lausanne, I
think it was, Bishop Mvemve pointed out that the common interest of apartheid South Africa and corporate Switzerland was
money. As I remember it he called the banks on the Hauptbahnstrasse  temples
dedicated to the worship of money.  Apartheid in the final analysis was also a system
founded on the worship of money. Apartheid was more than just racism and a
denial of human rights. Whites wanted to hold onto their power and privileges
in order to hold onto their money and wealth. The importance of boycotts and
sanctions was that these measures began to make it impossible for apartheid to
continue to be profitable for whites.

The internal struggle of demonstrations, protest marches, strikes and the attempts to make
the country ungovernable as well as the condemnation of apartheid by the Church
in South Africa all contributed to making the racial division unprofitable. The result was a
negotiated settlement, the dismantling of the racial system, and an enormous
improvement in the lives of very many people.

But there are also many millions of poor people who are still unemployed or are still expected to
live on starvation wages and still don’t have houses and other benefits. And
now they burn tyres to protest the never-ending lack of service delivery by the
present government.

The struggle against apartheid was the first step in the long struggle for liberation in South Africa. This
first step was a struggle against racial injustice and oppression. What we are
up against now is more obviously economic injustice and oppression. While more
and more black people have now become rich and the powerful, those who remain
poor feel that for them nothing much has changed. They are still poor. They are
still struggling.

Theologically speaking the Reign of Mammon continues – in South
Africa and in Switzerland, albeit in very different ways and with widely divergent results. We see the worship of money
not only in the activities of banks and big corporations but also in the
bribery and corruption, the fraud and the violent crime that is now so rampant
in South Africa. We are all part of one economic system in which Mammon reigns supreme.

But as Christians we believe that another world is possible, a non-racial, non-sexist world, a
more just and equitable world. A world in which God’s will is done on earth as
it is in heaven. We call it the Kingdom or Reign of God.

Yes, we need a post-colonial partnership. And as Church, as Christians, we need a new theology
– a theology that will condemn the worship of money and plot the way forward
towards a more equitable and just world, a theology that really challenges all
of us to co-operate and share with one another. The new partnership between the
Church in South Africa and in Switzerland
will have this very important theological dimension of condemning the worship
of Mammon and challenging us to listen to the cry of the poor in this day and


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