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 , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

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.

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."

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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.

For the past few months, Schwarz has been making contact with the full spectrum of political opinion in South Africa. He has met - and took part in a public debate - with South African Communist Party leader Joe Slovo. He had Nelson Mandela to dinner at his home, renewing a relationship that goes back three decades.

"I have been quite surprised by the positive reaction to my appointment," Schwarz said. He has been regarded with suspicion in anti-apartheid circles because of his hawkish views on security.

Schwarz has a strong sense of mission and insists that he will be a hands-on ambassador: "My job, as I see it, is to normalize relations between the US and South Africa," he said.

He has no illusions that the lifting of international trade sanctions - which gained momentum with US congressional action in 1986 - is going to be either rapid or easy. But he said there is much that can be done in the interim to restore Pretoria's access to international capital.

Schwarz said he will try to convince international development agencies that loans directly linked to black advancement can be granted immediately.

"Most of my time will be spent in one-on-one interviews with movers-and-shakers in the US," he said.

Schwarz has strong views about what the US role in the future of South Africa should be: "The US led the world's moral outrage against apartheid," he said. "Now it has a strong moral obligation to see that the system which follows is a true democracy. Americans cannot just wash their hands of South Africa once apartheid is finally abolished."

Schwarz sees the US role as exposing South Africans - black and white - to American values and educating them about the fundamentals of democracy.

"I seek to have the Americans understand that every South African should be entitled - under the new constitution - to enjoy ... the rights which every American enjoys under the US Constitution," he said in his farewell speech to the South African Parliament in February.

Sees important role for US

"Our people need to see the vital role played by the Supreme Court in the US," he said. "It is this respect for law and the power of the courts which I want to see enshrined in a South African constitution," he told Leadership magazine in a recent interview.

But he said he did not think political consensus would be the most difficult part of the transition. "The toughest part is the economy," he said, "the conflict between limited resources and high expectations."

Schwarz is adamant that the prospects for investment depend on whether political violence can be eliminated and realistic economic policies adopted.

He said that the black caucus in the US Congress has a special role to play. "They believe in democracy and free enterprise," said Schwarz. "Their influence could be more important than any other group."

Schwarz leaves little doubt about his goal: He wants to see the US use the same moral suasion with undemocratic black leaders as it has exercised on the country's white minority rulers.

Conveying this message will call for true diplomacy.

"He will have to transform himself from a militant politician into a seasoned diplomat," said Mrs. Suzman.

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