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Harry Schwarz: lawyer, politician, humanitarian




“One of his greatest legacies for South African Jews is pioneering the belief that you can be both a patriot and a fierce opponent of the government,” reflects his grandson, Adam.  

“The National Party attempted to construe anyone who was anti-apartheid as anti-South African. He argued that it was the duty of Jews, as loyal patriots, to oppose apartheid, as it was inconsistent with Jewish values and, ultimately, against the interests of South Africa. This stance put him at odds with some Jewish communal leaders.”

Born in Cologne, Germany in 1924, Schwarz fled as a child with his family to South Africa in the wake of Hitler’s rise to power. After serving in the South African Air Force during World War II, Schwarz forged a sterling career as a lawyer – including serving as a defence lawyer in the Rivonia Trial – before entering politics and fighting against the apartheid regime. On the eve of the new South Africa, he also served as ambassador to the United States. Schwarz died in Johannesburg in 2010 and is survived by his wife of 57 years, Annette, as well as three sons and four grandchildren.

This month marks the 44th anniversary of the Mahlabatini Declaration of Faith, an outcome of Schwarz’s grounding-breaking political initiative at the time ­ entering negotiations as a white politician with black political leaders. In this case, he was a co-signatory with Mangosuthu Buthelezi, who was then chief of the so-called KwaZulu bantusan. 

The document, signed by the two in Mahlabatini in KwaZulu-Natal,  is a call – revolutionary at the time – for change and equity through “peaceful means” and with the co-operation and consultation of “all our people”. Its final wording is a poignant encapsulation of the democratic dream: “We declare our faith in a South Africa of equal opportunity, happiness, security and peace for all its peoples.”

In a recent  interview with Harry’s wife, Annette, and son Jonathan, the two told SA Jewish Report about the context and significance of the declaration.

“In a way it was a provocation,” says Jonathan. “It couldn’t be otherwise. What were the alternatives?”

The declaration was released at a time when the National Party had  fully entrenched apartheid and black political activity had been suppressed.

In the context of white politics, then, the declaration was a “huge step”.

“Up until that point, the build-up had been white exclusivity in terms of political power. There had never been a black politician speak to a white political party before,” Jonathan says.

It was a daring step whose aftermath could not be predetermined, and it represented Schwarz’s courageous stance against the oppressive apartheid regime.  

As it turns out, soon after the declaration was released, “everything was shaken up”, says Jonathan. The United Party, of which Schwarz had been a member up until then, split in its aftermath. Many conservatives within the party shifted over to the National Party and the breakaway group, led by Schwarz and his political allies, who were dubbed the Young Turks, formed the Reform Party.

They soon faced their first election and won, with Schwarz being elected into Parliament for Yeoville.

“Everyone believed in what they were doing. The Young Turks worked at it,” says Annette, who ran all of her husband’s election campaigns.

Yet, beyond the intricacies of the political ramifications, the circumstances around the release of the declaration also serve as a chilling reminder of the absurd inhumanity of the apartheid state.

As Jonathan notes, even though Buthelezi was the head of a supposed independent state, “the reality was, a black person could not even go into the venue where the declaration was launched”.

Decades of apartheid rule ensued, but Schwarz did not give up his fight for social justice.

When the first hints of change came via some of former president FW de Klerk’s interventions, Schwarz had the foresight to recognise that the offer of a US ambassadorship was a sign that a new South Africa was dawning.

“De Klerk and the then minister of foreign affairs, Pik Botha, said: ‘It is no use sending a National Party member to America; they won’t believe him. Let’s send someone who has credibility’ – ­ that’s why Schwarz went,” explains Annette.

Schwarz wholeheartedly embraced this new role of working towards freedom, she adds. From 1991 to 1994, he visited every state in the US, as well as various corporates, to persuade them to lift sanctions.

“But he had to convince them that there would be an election and a change in the government,” says Annette.

Reflecting on what Schwarz perceived of some of the later realities of post-apartheid political life, she says the situation “didn’t turn out as Harry would have liked”.

Still, his example of persistence remains an inspiration for  Jonathan. “You have to stick to what you think is right and keep at it… It is about that determination, even if things look hopeless.”

Annette says her late husband’s deep sense of justice emanated from his childhood experiences of Nazi Germany.

“Seeing what happened under Hitler and coming to South Africa and seeing that a whole community of people were considered third-rate citizens just because of the colour of their skin was something Harry could never understand. What happened to Germany, what Hitler did to people, he didn’t want it happening in South Africa.”

Adds Jonathan: “He was shocked that the pro-Nazi National Party was elected in 1948.” Adam, his grandson, expresses admiration for how his grandfather turned his position in society from one of powerlessness to a leader championing the rights of the oppressed. “Given the early disadvantages of being a penniless child refugee, his life could have been a very sad story, but he turned it into one of success and contribution.”

“During his entire political career, Harry never turned anyone away…It didn’t matter what your problem was, Harry would deal with it,” adds Annette. And, although he was a “tough” political opponent, she says even those who disagreed with him respected him.

Through the recollections of the three generations of this family, it becomes clear that, while Schwarz was a man shaped by history, his final legacy is his sense of humanity.

“He just cared about everyone,” concludes Annette.

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