This Day in Jewish History |

1924: Harry Schwarz, South African Lawyer Who Fought Apartheid, Is Born

Years after fleeing Germany with his family as a child, Harry Schwarz went to law school with Nelson Mandela, who became a lifelong friend and colleague.

David Green
David B. Green
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David Green
David B. Green

May 13 is the 90th anniversary of the birth of Harry Schwarz, the Jewish South African lawyer and politician who courageously fought apartheid for more than four decades and served as South Africa’s ambassador to the United States after his country’s transition to multiracial democracy.

Heinz Schwarz was born in Cologne, Germany, on May 13, 1924, the son of Fritz and Alma Schwarz. Fritz was an activist in the Social Democratic party, who fled Germany for South Africa the night that Adolf Hitler came to power in 1933. He was joined the following year by his family, which by that point included a second son, Kurt.

During their first years in South Africa, the Schwarzes lived in Cape Town. It was there, in October 1936, that the SS Stuttgart docked, carrying Schwarz’s grandparents on the last boat allowed to bring Jewish refugees from Germany into South Africa. He later recalled how, as a boy of 12, while waiting for his grandparents to disembark, he witnessed an anti-refugee demonstration take place shipside. It was led by H.F. Verwoerd, a future prime minister of independent South Africa and the architect of apartheid.

The family later moved to Johannesburg, where Heinz completed high school. In 1943, he volunteered for the South African air force. He saw action as a navigator with the 15th squadron, over North Africa, Crete and Italy. In 1944, his squadron joined other Allied planes in attacking and sinking the SS Giulio Cesare, the same ocean liner that had brought him to Cape Town a decade earlier. During his service, Schwarz changed his first name to Harry.

After the war, Schwarz studied law at the University of the Witwatersrand, in Johannesburg, and also completed a BA he had begun as a soldier, at the University of South Africa, in Cape Town. One of his law school classmates was Nelson Mandela, who became a lifelong friend and colleague. Although Schwarz never joined the African National Congress, and remained steadfast to his belief that change in South Africa had to be achieved without violence, he devoted his career to working toward the same goals as Mandela.

In the 1963 Rivonia trial of 10 defendants (including Mandela) accused of working with the ANC, Schwarz aggressively defended South African lawyer Jimmy Kantor, and succeeded in having the charges against him dropped. Following the trial, Schwarz stopped working as a trial lawyer, and devoted himself to commercial law and to political work fighting apartheid.

Beginning in 1951, Schwarz served successively in the Johannesburg city council, the Transvaal provincial council, and eventually in the South African parliament. He began with the United Party, but was expelled in 1975, after drafting, together with Zulu chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi, the Mahlabatini Declaration of Fatih, in which they laid out their vision for a post-racial South Africa.

Together with other United Party colleagues, he formed the Reform Party, which, several mergers later, became the Progressive Federal Party, which was the official opposition party after 1977. Schwarz was known for his effectiveness as an opposition leader, in particular when he served as shadow finance minister.

In 1991, when it was clear that, under President F.W. de Klerk, the country was on the way to eliminating apartheid, Schwarz became South Africa’s ambassador to Washington, holding the position until after Mandela’s election as president in 1994 and his visit to Washington that November. Schwarz was responsible for overseeing the lifting of U.S. sanctions and arranging for a $600 million aid package to South Africa.

During the remaining 15 years of his life, Schwarz continued with his private law practice; set up a charity trust together with his wife, Annette (with whom he had three sons); and was active in South African Jewish affairs.

Harry Schwarz died on February 5, 2010, at age 85.

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