Zurich — A new wind has started to blow in Swiss banking circles. Up until now the Swiss have been slow to use organized client and shareholder clout to change bank and corporation policies. But this May, the board directors of Switzerland's giant food concern Nestle received a nasty shock when usually docile small shareholders showed their claws.
A group representing only 1 percent of the shares got up to demand full disclosure on the corporation's role in the third world, including the company position on raw material deals, codes of conduct for multinationals, and baby foods.
The company promised to supply what information it could and to report to the self-styled Nestle watchdog association.
Now, antiapartheid groups are gearing up for a full-scale assault against Swiss banks doing business with South Africa. Already some 4,000 letters have been sent out under the auspices of the public interest organization, Berne Declaration Group, to church, trade union, youth, and women's associations asking them to look into their bank's relations with South Africa.
Are they engaged in the gold trade? Do they lend to the government or public institutions? If so, the claim is that such banks are indirectly supporting apartheid and clients should show their disapproval. The plan is to put so much pressure on the banks in the coming months that they change their friendly attitude towards South Africa. Clients would remove their accounts only if this campaign has no effect.
Says Lukas Vogel, of the Swiss Antiapartheid Movement in Zurich: "Then we want everyone to do it on the same day. So that the move really has some impact." He predicts that the campaign will pick up real momentum in the fall, with street activities, prominent speakers, and a flood of individual letters to the banks from members of contacted organizations.
"It will not be easy to get people mobilized here," maintains economist Mascha Maedorin from the Solidarity Committee of Africa, Asia and Latin America (SKAAL). "But it is going to be a lot simpler than 10 years ago. The Swiss banks are not such holy cows as they used to be. There is much more awareness here that something has to be done about this country's part in the exploitation of the third world."
The Swiss Gold Pool, a consortium of Switzerland's top three banks -- Union Bank of Switzerland, Swiss Bank Corporation, and Credit Suisse -- is the world's most important dealer in South African gold. Between 50-60 percent of this country's gold bullion exports passes through Zurich.
Though Switzerland's traditionally discreet bankers are tight-lipped on how much they make from the metal, taking gold out of their profits would hurt badly.
Antiapartheid groups here point out that in 1980 gold provided about 18 percent of the South African domestic product and financed more than half of its imports. Their claim: make it impossible for South Africa to sell gold and economic turmoil will topple apartheid.
Of particular concern to antiapartheid groups here is Switzerland's leading role as a South African creditor. SKAAL's Mascha Maedorin notes that Swiss banks were involved in public bond issues, private placements, and syndicated credits as co-managers or participants in some $55.5 million of private placement.
Such money, claim the antiapartheid groups, may not be directly listed for military projects. But it frees government funds for just that and a continuation of the present repressive policies. The borrowed finance is also helping to make South Africa industrially self-sufficient, they point out, thus making the country less vulnerable to outside economic pressure to change apartheid policies.
What do the Swiss banks say to protesting customers? Politics is not a bank's business, Credit Suisse spokesman Andre Lou Sugar explains.
"We are neutral and do not mix in politics. Look, we carry on business with a lot of countries where privately we may not agree with their political system, " he adds.
The Swiss banks are not in an easy position. They know only too well that if they dropped gold trading with South Africa, for instance, other financial centers would be quick to move in.
In the last few years Zurich's share of the gold trade has been reduced, hit by tough competition from London, West Germany, and the US. An estimated 75 percent of bullion and Krugerrands were sold through Switzerland in 1975, around 20 percent more than now.