SIR Robin Renwick is a diplomat who has achieved a distinction rare in this often bitterly divided country: He has earned the respect and affection of both the white establishment and black anti-apartheid leaders. The British envoy who left South Africa last week ``brought a freshness to the job and took so much more of a grip than any of his predecessors,'' said Zach de Beer, leader of the liberal Democratic Party.
``He was an interventionist in our politics to a degree which would have been unthinkable 10 years ago,'' says Dr. De Beer. ``He used British influence creatively and brilliantly to promote fundamental political change.''
Interventionism is not a word normally associated with British diplomacy, but Sir Robin, now ambassador-designate to the United States, appears to have succeeded in combining the two.
With characteristic British modesty, Sir Robin concedes only that British influence ``might have made some difference.''
During his four-year posting the faltering and repressive regime of President Pieter Botha collapsed, President Frederik de Klerk embarked on fundamental reforms, Nelson Mandela was freed, a nationwide emergency was lifted, tentative interracial talks got underway, and statutory apartheid was scrapped amid sustained political violence.
``We were very lucky to be here during a period when one could get something done,'' Sir Robin says.
Shortly after his arrival in 1987, he began making speeches that strongly criticized the repression and apartheid of the Botha regime. This was a clear departure from his predecessors who had pursued a more aloof line.
``It was a very high-risk operation,'' Sir Robin reflected recently.
``It worked for two reasons: Firstly, people were loathe to censure the representative of the government of the United Kingdom, and secondly, a large part of the Afrikaner establishment were very unhappy about the way things were going.''
Sir Robin set about forging close links with leading Afrikaner figures like Professor Pieter de Lange, head of the secret Afrikaner society known as the Broderbond (Band of Brothers) and Professor Johan Heyns of the Dutch Reformed Church.
``If you're trying to promote change you have to work with what is there,'' Sir Robin says.
His influence in the landmark decision to allow anti-apartheid demonstrations in September 1989 is well known in political and diplomatic circles. Five months later Mr. De Klerk changed the course of history by legalizing political opposition to apartheid.
Until the time he left Sir Robin was using his influence to try to narrow the gap between the government, the African National Congress, and the Inkatha Freedom Party on the issue of violence.
During his term he increased British aid to black South Africans fivefold and won many friends among blacks with his even-handed approach. He was one of ANC Deputy President Nelson Mandela's most regular visitors and a great personal admirer.
``In my book he is a great man,'' says Sir Robin. ``One develops a great affection for him.''
He also won admirers among the country's white rulers. In one of many interviews which appeared in the South African media on the eve of Sir Robin's departure Foreign Minister Roelof (Pik) Botha described him as ``probably the most outstanding ambassador ever stationed in South Africa.''
A British ambassador in South Africa enjoys a special status and influence due to the close historical, cultural, and economic links between the two countries. The British government harbors a deep fear about the consequences of a racial war here where almost 1 million whites of British descent have a claim to a British passport.
This has ensured a conservatism in British foreign policy which has, in the past decade, been interpreted by black South Africans as a bias toward whites, even outright racism.
Sir Robin arrived with the reputation of being a key adviser to former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher on sanctions and the author of a book discrediting them as a means of bringing about political transformation.
``He wasn't an ambassador - he was an interventionist,'' says an ANC official who charted his progress in South Africa from exile in London.
``He reported directly to Downing Street [the prime minister's office and residence] rather than the British Foreign Office, and he often took upon himself to act as a coordinator of Western foreign policy towards South Africa.''
``For an outsider, this is a country where you get very attached and very involved,'' Sir Robin says.
His involvement was acknowledged with the rare occasion of a British ambassador being awarded an honorary doctorate by the liberal University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg.
Sir Robin is optimistic about South Africa's future because he believes major adversaries have no option but to keep talking.
``I believe that, in the end, there will be a historic compromise between black African nationalism and a large and important white community,'' he told The Star of Johannesburg.
``On a good day everybody understands this,'' he says. ``On a bad day there's a lot of screaming and shouting.'' But he warns that the problems of post-apartheid South Africa - such as unemployment, socio-economic inequality and violence - will be difficult to resolve, and he warns against ``Utopian illusions'' that a flood of investment would flow into South Africa once apartheid ended.
``There is a real danger that when apartheid has gone the world will lose interest here,'' he says. ``That is why it is so important that South Africans make a success of things.''