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South Africa's Unlikely New Envoy

Anti-apartheid lawyer Harry Schwarz's post in US is clear signal of his nation's new politics

By John BattersbyStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / March 25, 1991


SOUTH Africa's new ambassador to the United States, Harry Schwarz, is a fighter who has a record of getting his way. He is the first major political appointee from outside the ranks of the ruling National Party and is sure to bring a radically different style to Pretoria's diplomacy in the US.

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Mr. Schwarz, who took up his post in Washington earlier this month, has a reputation as a political street-fighter and a brilliant debater. He is a successful lawyer, businessman, and financial commentator with international contacts. But, in some ways, he is an unlikely diplomat.

"He has a very quick temper and will have to learn to keep his cool," said veteran human-rights campaigner Helen Suzman, who has been both a political foe and colleague. "We started off in politics on not very good terms," said Mrs. Suzman. "But that has changed substantially over the years. We have learned to respect each other."

Both friend and foe see his appointment as the clearest signal yet that South African President Frederik de Klerk has undergone a political transformation.

"It is De Klerk who has changed, not me," said Schwarz in an interview at his legal firm here before he left for the US. "I have no quarrel with him today."

Schwarz arrived in South Africa some five decades ago as a Jewish refugee from Nazi Germany. He served as a navigator in the South African Air Force, qualified as a lawyer, and was a member of the defense team at the treason trial of Nelson Mandela and seven others in 1963-64.

He has consistently opposed apartheid and advocated a federal system with a social market economy, as well as a return to the rule of law from the state of emergency that has been in effect since June 1986.

These values - once on the margins of South African politics - have landed him in the mainstream debate over the "new South Africa." But his strong stand on defense and law and order earned him the title of "Harry the Hawk" and have made him a controversial political figure: He has been a thorn in the side of every political party.

When he quit the opposition United Party to join the Progressives in the mid-1970s, a UP front-bencher warned: "He'll be a stone in your stomach for the rest of your lives." To some of his colleagues in the Democratic Party - successor to the Progressives - he has been just that.

Some happy to see him go

"Some of us are delighted that he is leaving," said one Democratic legislator. "Now we can stop taking tranquilizers before the weekly caucus meeting."

Despite his position of privilege, Schwarz is a passionate social democrat and one of the loudest voices for the deprived emanating from the white establishment. His calls on whites to make material sacrifices for black advancement have drawn abusive phone calls. But Schwarz is not easily diverted from his chosen course and is a persuasive advocate of his beliefs.

"He is a brilliant debater with an extraordinarily acute mind," said Democratic Party leader Zac de Beer. "He goes for the jugular quicker than anyone else."

Schwarz confounded some of his colleagues by not joining the National Party. He accepted De Klerk's offer now only because he believes that the process of political change is irreversible and that De Klerk is sincere.