SWITZERLAND's manufacturing and engineering industries do not want to be slow to harness economic opportunities in South Africa.

On Thursday, SwissMem, an association representing the mechanical and electrical engineering sectors, and other Swiss business and government representatives met South African Trade and Industry Minister Rob Davies in Bern to witness the two countries signing a bilateral trade agreement.

Switzerland is South Africa's eighth-biggest export destination. Swiss companies such as Nestlé and Roche have made extensive investments in South Africa over the past few years.

Hans Hess, head of SwissMem, said opportunities in South Africa would be quickly snapped up by other countries if the Swiss did not act quickly.

"We need to use opportunities in Africa. South Africa can be our gateway to the continent. We have been in South Africa before, but now we want to work more deeply with the country," he said.

Mr Davies said his meeting largely involved discussing a R1bn-plus deal between Lonza, a Swiss pharmaceutical manufacturer, and Pelchem, a subsidiary of the South African Nuclear Energy Corporation.

According to the deal, announced in February, Lonza is to provide chemicals for antiretrovirals.

Mr Davies also said he had looked the vocational-academic split in Switzerland's education system, which had decreased youth unemployment to below 6% - among the lowest in the world.

The system lets students move between academic and trade schools, with about 20% attending universities and the rest learning a trade, including business administration. Apprentices enrolled in trade schools are paid for their work.

Mr Davies would not say, however, whether South Africa should enforce such a system. "I am happy to see companies keen to train people," he said. "We must rejuvenate skills education training authorities. We have programmes for engineers."

Germany and Denmark have already reduced youth unemployment using an education system similar to Switzerland's, while it is being implemented in India and Slovakia.

The Swiss argue that having academic and vocational education options ensures jobs are filled. Switzerland's economy grew 2,1% last year.

Mr Davies also said South Africa and Africa should try to build industrial know-how as the Swiss had done.

andersona@bdfm.co.za