Harry Schwarz, anti-apartheid crusader and South African Jewish leader, dies

Today JTA is reporting that Schwarz, a refugee from Nazi German and a  longtime South African Jewish leader, has died at the age of 86.

Schwarz, who served as South Africa’s ambassador to the United States in the early 1990s, was an anti-apartheid activist and legal defender of Nelson Mandela. But as U.S. ambassador,  he also fought against the international sanctions that most observers believe were the key to eventually bringing down the apartheid regime.

In a 1991 interview, Schwarz told me his status as a refugee from Nazi Germany gave him a particular distaste for the party that kept South Africa under its iron grip between 1948 and the fall of apartheid.

"There are several elements in the development of my feelings about apartheid," he said in that interview. "First, I am Jewish; being Jewish, you have certain value standards, and you have a certain belief that your own people have been discriminated against over many centuries. Therefore, you cannot be a person who discriminates, or who is party to a  discriminating procedure."

And he was influenced by the fact the creators of the apartheid system supported the wrong side in World War II.

"After the war, in 1948, the National Party came into power in South Africa," he told me. "To me, they were the people who had supported Germany during the war. As a young man, it was very objectionable to me that the very people I had been fighting against were the people that the National Party had supported."

Ironically, as ambassador he was serving a government dominated by that same National Party.

At the time I wrote: “Mr. Schwarz’s resume makes him a very elusive target for anti-apartheid forces here, who suspect that his real role in Washington is to weaken the pro-sanctions movement–and in particular, to drive a wedge between the movement and the Jewish community.”

His presence in Washington was uncomfortable for some of the Jewish groups that had made South Africa sanctions a top priority.

Complex? Yes. But there’s little doubt Schwarz was an anti-apartheid crusader at a time when such crusades were dangerous.

About the Author
Douglas M. Bloomfield is a syndicated columnist, Washington lobbyist and consultant. He spent nine years as the legislative director and chief lobbyist for AIPAC.