JOHANNESBURG, South Africa--An editorial cartoon published in a local newspaper recently showed Harry Schwarz, a South African and longtime foe of apartheid, being grilled mercilessly by a group of suspicious American reporters.
Had Schwarz, they demanded to know, suddenly defected to the government camp?
“I haven’t joined them,” Schwarz protests. “They’ve joined me.”
Schwarz has uttered those words again and again since President Frederik W. de Klerk appointed him South African ambassador to the United States--a move akin to President Bush sending someone like his 1988 Democratic opponent, Michael S. Dukakis, as his envoy to Moscow.
Schwarz has been a political opponent of the South African government, and De Klerk’s ruling National Party, for as long as anyone can remember.
He was a key figure in the liberal Democratic Party, the current home of such luminaries as Helen Suzman, the longtime white anti-apartheid crusader who recently retired in 1989 after serving 36 years in South Africa’s parliament. And he has bitterly fought National Party policies throughout his distinguished 41-year career in politics.
But much has changed in South Africa in the 18 months since De Klerk stepped up from former President Pieter W. Botha’s Cabinet, took the reins of government and guided the country on a galloping reform program. Now the party that instituted apartheid is dismantling apartheid. And most of the old rules of politics here no longer apply.
“The reality is that the policies of De Klerk are actually what we have been advocating all along,” Schwarz said in a recent interview. “So my appointment, which people don’t understand, makes sense. Is it right that somebody should go to Washington to advocate the old South Africa? Or should we advocate the new South Africa?”
And sending a man with the liberal credentials of Harry Schwarz to Washington may turn to be a masterstroke for the South African government.
“It tells me that De Klerk is a very shrewd politician,” said Anthoni van Nieuwkerk, a policy analyst with the independent South African Institute for International Affairs.
Van Nieuwkerk and other analysts say the appointment will go a long way toward persuading those Americans who still doubt the government’s sincerity and will help De Klerk expand his support base among liberal whites inside South Africa.
And Schwarz’s business contacts in South Africa, nurtured during his tenure as finance expert for the Democratic Party, may come in handy when President Bush and Congress decide to dismantle the stiff U.S. trade sanctions against Pretoria, a move that may come this year.
“Harry is a staunch capitalist, and he fits into the bigger scheme of things as De Klerk sees it,” Van Nieuwkerk said. “If the negotiating process finally gets under way, Harry could play a crucial role” in renewing trade ties between American and South African businesses.
But whatever role he adopts in Washington, Schwarz will not be a reticent diplomat. He may not even be very diplomatic. His friends--and his political enemies--know him as an outspoken and fierce advocate who is beholden to no one.
“Schwarz was an awkward man to have at a party,” a regularly featured columnist known only as Hogarth wrote recently in the Sunday Times newspaper in South Africa. He was “perpetually given to fierce arguments on some or other rabbinical point of principle, and he usually led an army of one.”
But, the columnist added, “in his grasp of policy, his feeling for the people, and his parliamentary skill, he had no peer.”
Some in his party who remain suspicious of De Klerk’s reform program were dismayed that Schwarz accepted the job. But, as usual, Schwarz didn’t pay much attention to his critics. And most of his colleagues considered it “the cherry on top after a long career,” according to Peter Soal, the Democratic Party spokesman and a Schwarz admirer.
“But he won’t be a passive representative, I’ll tell you that,” Soal warned with a chuckle. “He won’t be going to Washington to indulge himself in retirement.”
Schwarz, a 66-year-old lawyer, admits to being a man of strong opinions, which he attributes to an upbringing that was far different from that of most whites in South Africa.
Harry Heinz Schwarz was born in Cologne, Germany, in 1924, and one of his earliest memories was seeing a street brawl between Communists and a procession of Nazis near his home.
His father, worried about the future of Jews in Germany, moved the family to South Africa when Harry was 10 years old. It was the depth of the Depression and the family struggled, living at first in one room. Harry spoke no English at first and he remembers being taunted on the schoolyard for being different.
“I know two things which I think people here in the black community know,” he said recently. “I know what the word discrimination means, not because I’ve read it in a book, but because I’ve been the subject of it. And I know what it means to be hungry.”
That created in him a special empathy for South Africa’s black people, who have been denied economic and political opportunity by the system of apartheid. Although Schwarz is a strong proponent of a free-market economy, those views have always been tempered by the traditionally liberal belief in social responsibility.
As a young man, Schwarz was drawn into several political trials, including the most famous one in South African history. He was a junior counsel representing one of the defendants in the 1964 Rivonia treason trial, at which Nelson Mandela and others were sentenced to life in prison for plotting to overthrow the government. (Schwarz’s client, a white lawyer friend, was acquitted.)
Although he admired Mandela’s skill as a lawyer and respected the depth of the African National Congress leader’s political convictions, Schwarz has over the years had little sympathy for the ANC’s guerrilla war or its support for economic sanctions against Pretoria.
“I’ve never been in favor of a revolutionary process,” Schwarz said. “I regard violence as something to be avoided at all costs.”
Schwarz’s feelings about violence were shaped during World War II, when he joined the South African air force and was passed on to the Royal Air Force, where he saw three years of combat duty in North Africa and Europe.
But Schwarz has confounded some of his liberal colleagues over the years by supporting strong police action to put down political unrest.
“I make no secret of it. I’m a law-and-order person,” he said. “I believe in the concept that (the late South African author) Alan Paton put forward: without law and order, there can be no liberty.”
Prior to his ambassadorial appointment, Schwarz practiced commercial and tax law from of a large office on the 25th floor of a downtown Johannesburg skyscraper when he was not in Parliament.
He and his wife, Annette, 64, an artist, have three grown sons. The oldest, who earned his law degree at UC Berkeley, is an international tax lawyer in London. The youngest works as a lawyer in Princeton, N.J., and the middle son is an artist in South Africa.
Schwarz, his wife and their two dogs now are in route to Washington, where he takes up his post on March 1. He will face a very different task from his predecessor, Pieter G. J. Koornhof, who had to fight a hostile and combative American public during much of his tenure.
Although some Americans still doubt De Klerk’s commitment to relinquish white control, many more, including much of Congress, are already convinced. Support for De Klerk was strengthened a few days ago when he announced plans to use this five-month session of parliament to repeal the three remaining pillars of apartheid--race classification, residential segregation, and the bar on black land ownership.
The sanctions that Schwarz and most other white liberals in South Africa strongly opposed are now on their way out, most analysts believe.
The job of the new ambassador, as Schwarz sees it, will be to persuade Americans that the 1986 sanctions against Pretoria now give the United States a moral obligation to assist South Africa during what is sure to be a difficult transition.
“Whether sanctions were right or wrong doesn’t really matter anymore,” Schwarz said. “But my view is that the United States cannot now say, ‘We wash our hands of the post-apartheid South Africa.’
“You’ve now got a moral obligation to ensure that the post-apartheid society conforms with your own ideas of democracy,” he added. “You’ve got involved. Now stay involved and see to it that we get a proper democracy, a proper kind of market economy, and a proper exercise of human rights.”
Schwarz had been surprised by De Klerk’s job offer, and he took several days to consider it.
He first sought assurances from the president that he wouldn’t be required to resign from the Democratic Party because, as he told De Klerk, “I have not in any way changed my politics.” De Klerk said he understood and that National Party membership was not a condition of the job.
(The government didn’t seem to want to highlight Schwarz’s anti-government credentials. In announcing the appointment, the state-run television company’s evening newscast identified Schwarz as South Africa’s “first Jewish ambassador.”)
The ambassadorial appointment is a political gamble for both Schwarz and De Klerk, and it could backfire. Schwarz could find himself being called upon to defend government actions he doesn’t support, and De Klerk could be greatly embarrassed should his ambassador resign.
Schwarz has thought a lot about the potential for conflict. But he has concluded that “you can’t ever have a situation where everybody will think alike. What you do in life is you look at a broad thrust, politically.”
And Schwarz says he has full confidence in De Klerk’s politics, even though he doesn’t want to join De Klerk’s party.
“If years ago this had been offered to me, such as I might have been flattered, I could not have taken it,” Schwarz said. “But I can take it now. I actually believe the man is sincere and that he wants a democratic South Africa.”
Name: Harry Heinz Schwarz
Title: South Africa’s ambassador to the United States.
Personal: Born in Cologne, West Germany. Family moved to South Africa when Schwarz was 10 years old. Schwarz, a lawyer, is married and has three grown sons. He is a member of South Africa’s liberal Democratic Party.
Quote: “I know two things which I think people . . . in the black community know. I know what the word discrimination means, not because I’ve read it in a book, but because I’ve been the subject of it. And I know what it means to be hungry.”
Harry Schwarz, South Africa’s recently appointed ambassador to the United States.