Only four years ago, Pretoria was the target of world rage. A package of U.S. sanctions was biting down hard, African governments were demanding even greater isolation and the South African ambassador to the United Nations challenged the world to "do your damnedest" to make his country change.
Those were dark days for South Africa's diplomatic corps.
And into the fray walked a new director general of South Africa's Department of Foreign Affairs. Urbane, thoughtful and well-spoken, Neil Peter van Heerden nevertheless had his work cut out for him as the second-ranking diplomat from a country ostracized by the world.
"The world had a very strong moral objection to what was happening in South Africa," Van Heerden recalled recently. "Some of it was justified and some due to polarizing."
"Of course, not everyone accusing us had clean hands," he added. "But it was easy for them. We had laws on the statute books that discriminated and that's all they had to say. You could give reasons, historical and social, but in the end you were swimming against the current."
All that has now changed, due in no small part to the efforts of Van Heerden, a 52-year-old government official of whom even the most careful readers of newspapers have never heard. And that may be why he's so successful in the art of diplomacy.
Van Heerden was one of the behind-the-scenes architects of peace in Angola, where South African soldiers were fighting Soviet-supported Cuban and Angolan troops until just a few years ago, and the long-delayed independence in Namibia, which South Africa had ruled for 75 years. Most analysts saw the peaceful settlement of those conflicts as a precursor, if not the catalyst, for change inside South Africa.
At the same time, Van Heerden was trying to keep diplomatic doors open around the world, but especially among South Africa's most vocal critics in Africa. He seems to have succeeded, and Pretoria's foreign service network is expanding rapidly.
South Africa will have opened 15 new offices abroad by the end of the year, bringing the total to 73 missions in more than 50 countries. That roster includes new offices in Moscow, Warsaw, Prague and Budapest as well as new African missions in Togo, Ivory Coast and Madagascar. (In the United States, Pretoria has five offices, including a consulate in Beverly Hills.)
These days Van Heerden is regarded--by foreign ambassadors and even by many in the African National Congress--as one of the country's most able and effective representatives and, perhaps, a key player in future negotiations for a new constitution.
"He's a damn good diplomat," said Chester A. Crocker, assistant secretary of state for African affairs during the Ronald Reagan Administration and now a professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University. "He's often described as being cool as a cucumber. And it's true that he's cool. He always manages to maintain an equilibrium of presence."
William Lacy Swing, U.S. ambassador to South Africa, described Van Heerden as "one of the finest diplomats I've encountered in about 30 years in this business."
"He's a diplomat's diplomat," Swing added. "He has finesse as well as firmness and he's a master of detail without ever losing sight of the big picture. He's also a true intellectual with a sense of what's doable."
Even the African National Congress, which tried for 30 years to overthrow the Pretoria government by force, acknowledges its respect for Van Heerden.
"We have good relations with Foreign Affairs," said Thabo Mbeki, the ANC's foreign affairs chief. Mbeki says the ANC would want to change the overwhelmingly white makeup of Foreign Affairs, where it is said that 960 of the 1,000 diplomats are white.
"That cannot continue," Mbeki said. But Mbeki, who himself is often mentioned as a candidate for foreign minister in a post-apartheid South African government, would like Van Heerden and other capable foreign service officers to play a role in the new South Africa, even one under ANC control.
"There's a place for them," Mbeki said. "You see, the mind-set has changed for a lot of people."
Nowhere is the new mind-set more evident than in Pretoria's Foreign Affairs Department, the international salesmen for President Frederik W. de Klerk's "new South Africa."
"We can walk a lot taller now than we ever could," Van Heerden said. He added that his job now is to "ease all of us (the ANC and the government) out of the hard and fast positions of yesterday, without anyone losing face."
For most of his 32-year career, Van Heerden had been defending apartheid. Now he's on the other side. Ever the diplomat, he is cagey about his own personal feelings during that period. In the old days, "of course there was the personal problem. But the public servant serves the government of the day. Now those things have all changed and it's a new situation. One can ask what we have achieved. We managed to keep some doors not entirely closed." Before De Klerk came along, Van Heerden was serving the government of President Pieter W. Botha. His job then was to sell Botha's limited reforms to foreign doubters, but by all accounts he also tried to speed up those reforms at home.
During 1988, Van Heerden quietly went to Washington for meetings with Crocker and other American officials. Crocker was trying to lure South Africa into U.S.-mediated talks to end the war in Angola, but President Botha, under pressure from conservative whites in his own country, had refused to participate.
Van Heerden "used his trip to build up the biggest closetful of ammunition you ever saw to take back home and convince people this was worth trying out," Crocker said.
A few weeks later, "South Africa gave us the green light," said Crocker, who guided the Angolan peace accord for eight difficult years. "I think he was personally responsible for a lot of that persuasive effort."
As director general, the tall, angular Van Heerden is the nation's top foreign service professional and the second-highest ranking diplomat, behind the combative, gregarious Foreign Minister Roelof F. (Pik) Botha (who is no relation to the former president).
Van Heerden's first posting was Tokyo, as the vice consul. Over the next decade he opened South African missions in Taiwan and Iran and spent four years in Washington as first secretary of the embassy there. He became ambassador to Bonn in 1980, deputy director general for Africa in 1985 and director general in 1987.
When De Klerk announced his reforms 18 months ago, Van Heerden said he found his job had changed, "from purely defensive and combative to one of opportunity and a defensible moral base."
"We're no longer just defending a fort," he said, "and it's exciting and challenging."
One of the surprises of South Africa's improved international standing has been the positive reception of African countries that once were Pretoria's most vocal critics.
Africa and South Africa "came from so far apart that, to me, it's a surprise that this is working as quickly as it seems to be," Van Heerden said. "We are not in the clear yet," he added, but the reception De Klerk received recently in Kenya and other countries has given him hope.
As Van Heerden sees it, Africa could be an important catalyst for South Africa's acceptance worldwide.
"If Africa changes, what justification do others have for holding out?" he said. "We know that many European countries have set their sails by the African wind."
For the future, Van Heerden will be trying to recruit blacks, mixed-race Coloreds and Indians into the foreign service, he said, "to make it a more representative organization." So far, with blacks still denied a vote in South Africa, it's been an uphill battle.
"We hope in the coming months that we will have changes in our makeup that will show that this is a place where the color of a man's skin does not count," he said.
Biography Name: Neil Peter van Heerden Title: Director-General of Foreign Affairs, South Africa. Age: 52 Personal: Born in East London, South Africa, in 1939. Earned a bachelor's degree in political science at the University of Pretoria and the University of South Africa. Married, with two children. Foreign Postings: Tokyo, Taipei, Tehran, Washington, Bonn. Quote: "If we continue to do the right thing here . . . eventually the United States will come around to support us, rather than be unfair and unreasonable. One thing you can always take to the American public is a plea for fairness."