WASHINGTON — Harry Schwarz has landed here just as Congress and the White House are gearing up for the capital's biggest fight over South Africa since 1986. That was the year the Comprehensive Anti-Apartheid Act, which imposed harsh economic sanctions on South Africa, was enacted over President Reagan's veto.
Harry Schwarz, whose family fled Nazi Germany, is South Africa's new ambassador in Washington.
In 1986, P. W. Botha was South Africa's president and Nelson Mandela was a prisoner on Robben Island. Back then, Schwarz sat in the opposition benches of the South African parliament, exerting, in round numbers, zero influence on the policies of the ruling National Party. Today, he is South Africa's new ambassador to the United States. When the sanctions debate now gathering steam comes to a boil, he may prove to be Pretoria's ace in the hole.
From the tired arguments trotted out by the sanctions supports, like Randall Robinson of TransAfrica or Baltimore's Democratic congressman, Kweisi Mfume, you'd think South Africa was still mired in 1986 or that that the world had never neard from a radical reformer named F. W. de Klerk. When hearings on sanctions were held on Capitol Hill last week, they offered up the old nothing-has-changed line, the one they mutter every time another pillar of apartheid falls.
"The government of South Africa is no closer to democracy," Mfume told his colleagues, "than it was 10 to 15 years ago."
But from other witnesses, white and black, came the rebuttal: Get real. De Klerk has triggered irreversible change for the better in South Africa; keeping sanctions alive only retards that change,. What's more, the people whom sanctions hit the hardest are those most desperately in need of the jobs foreign investment would create — South Africa's impoverished black majority.
Ambassador Schwarz, of course, wants sanctions lifted, too — the sooner, the better. But he is no butter-tongued flack, trying to put the best face on apartheid or dress up small reforms as large ones. A Jewish refugee whose family fled to South Africa from Germany to escape the Nazi horror, Schwarz experienced bigotry first-hand and has fought it all his life. He isn't about the start making excuses for it now.
In the 1950s, Schwarz was a street activist in the anti-apartheid Torch Commando. In 1963 he served on Nelson Mandela's legal defense team. In 1974 he won a seat in Parliament as a member of the opposition Progressive Federal [now Democratic] Party, embarking on a 16-year career as a thorn in the National Party's side, and an unremitting critic of South Africa's institutionalized racism.
What de Klerk has wrought since taking office in 1989 — releasing Mandela, ending the state of emergency, repealing South Africa's most notorious apartheid laws — has been extraordinary. But reaching into the ranks of the anti-apartheid opposition to fill the country's most important diplomatic post may have been his most astonishing move of all.
"It was as if President Bush, in looking for [someone] to sell his policies abroad, had settled upon Senator Edward M. Kennedy," commented the New York Times.
Schwarz is mystified by the sanctions-forever crowd.
"There is a kind of rear-guard action which these people are fighting, to try and argue either that there isn't any change, or that the change isn't enough, or that the change isn't irreversible — and that what you should be doing now is, instead of making things easier, make things more difficult for South Africa," he says.
Schwarz the politician senses the political pressures building up in South Africa as reform accelerates. Schwarz the financier knows that nonracial democracy will founder if it is built upon economic quicksand. Lift sanctions today, and it will still take three years for any positive effects to be felt in South Africa. But by 1994, a new constitution will be in force and elections will have taken place.
"By having sanctions continue, you are actually harming the new South Africa," says Schwarz. "I cannot understand the sense in that — in saying people must continue to suffer."
When a man who has devoted most of his life to the struggle for a new South Africa tells you that apartheid is dead and that sanctions are holding up its burial, he speaks with a moral authority that is difficult to assail.
"There are tremendous expectations in South Africa," he warns. "Unless you build up the economy now, so you can meet some of those expectations, people are going to say: 'Look, we've struggeld for years, we've been deprived for years. Now that we've got the vote, what does it mean?' And they're going to discover that freedom which is exercised in poverty is not freedom.
To US Representative Mervyn Dymally (D-California), the black chairman of the House Subcommittee on Africa, "it is inconceivable" that Congress will agree to lift sanctions any time soon. To Harry Schwarz, who was fighting apartheid in the streets of Johannesburg long before it was fashionable, American congressmen trying to be more Catholic than the pope when it comes to South Africa are apt to strangle South African democracy in its crib.
(Jeff Jacoby is the Boston Herald's chief editorial writer.)
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