Mandela died at the age of 95 on Thursday evening, when the news was announced by current South African President Jacob Zuma.
“With the passing of Nelson Mandela, South Africa, the African continent and the whole world loses an exceptional leader, one of the great men of our times,” the office of Swiss president Ueli Maurer said in a statement.
“His struggle for freedom, human rights, democracy, the peaceful settlement of conflicts and national reconciliation in his country has marked the history of the second half of the 20th century,” the statement said.
“The values of justice, peace, respect for others, tolerance and humanity that he personified will remain etched in our memories for a long time.”
Maurer was to send a telegram of condolences on Friday.
While Switzerland later welcomed the end of apartheid, the country had an ambivalent attitude toward what was going on in South Africa’s racist regime, Swiss media acknowledged in articles published on Friday.
Between 1948 and 1994 Bern maintained close contacts with Pretoria, even while it publicly condemned apartheid, the South African system of racial discrimination, 20 Minutes noted.
“By not supporting sanctions, Switzerland by its exports of capital and the acquisition of South African gold supported in terms of economic resilience of the apartheid regime with its state-owned businesses hungry for financing and its enormous public expenses,” historian George Kreis wrote in a study of Swiss relations with the regime.
The two countries also exchanged information to combat opponents of apartheid, according to the study, cited by 20 Minutes.
Kreis says the Swiss even imported uranium from South Africa as part of a plan to develop an atomic bomb that was eventually dropped.
Nevertheless, when Mandela was liberated in February 1990 after spending 27 years in prison over a conviction to overthrow the apartheid government, Switzerland was one of the first countries he visited.
He met with Swiss Foreign Affairs minister René Felber, a member of the Social Democratic party, in Bern on June 8th 1990 after visiting Geneva.
Mandela, who went on to serve as president of South Africa from 1994 to 1999, may have had good reason to meet with Felber.
The Swiss minister was involved in a diplomatic mission, ultimately aborted, to free Mandela by making contact with the then South African president P.W. Botha.
The mission envisaged liberating Mandela in Switzerland but it fell apart when Botha, meeting Felber in Bern in October 1988, complained that he had not been informed of the scheme, unbeknownst to the Swiss minister.
During his visit to Geneva in June 1990, where he received a standing ovation at the United Nations, Mandela thanked the Swiss people for their support in the fight against apartheid, according to a report at the time from the ATS news agency.