Feisty Lawyer Fought Apartheid

He escaped the Nazis as a child.

Harry Schwarz was a Jewish refugee who escaped Germany as a child and moved to South Africa, where he became a leader in the movement to end apartheid.

Heinz Schwarz was born to a poor Jewish family in Cologne, Germany in 1924. At age 10 in 1934 Heinz emigrated with his family to South Africa, escaping from Germany soon after the Nazis took power. They took a ship from Italy to Cape Town and arrived in South Africa destitute. The family lived in a rented room in a shabby boarding house. Heinz considered himself “lucky” to have a rusty bathtub to sleep in. He did not speak English or Afrikaans and was bullied mercilessly in school. Having fled racial persecution in Germany, Heinz had a natural empathy for black South Africans, who were poor and oppressed under an apartheid regime of separation between the races. As a boy and throughout his life, Heinz determined to fight racial nationalism and bring equality to his new country.

The family lived in Cape Town and then moved to Johannesburg, where Heinz attended high school. Heinz was an impressive young man – brilliant, well-spoken and confident – and by the time he graduated in 1943, he had a job and a college scholarship waiting for him. Instead he joined the South African Air Force to fight Nazis. Before shipping off, Heinz’ Colonel urged him to change his name to the less German sounding “Harry” in case he were captured. As Harry, he served as a navigator in southern Europe and North Africa.

After the war, Harry returned to Johannesburg where he attended University of the Witwatersrand. He made several life-long friends there, including Nelson Mandela, the only black law student at the university. Harry became politically active on behalf of the United Party, in opposition to the National Party, which had supported Germany during the war. He ran for treasurer of the Student Council and thought it unethical to vote for himself; he lost by one vote. It was the only election he lost in a 43 year political career.

Harry earned a BA and then a law degree. While still in school he ran for the Johannesburg City Council and stunned everybody by winning the seat, which had always gone for the National Party. He was the youngest person on the City Council, but became its most influential when he began advocating for the rights of black South Africans. He became a member of the South African Bar in 1953 and continued his involvement in politics, serving on the Transvaal provincial council while at the same time practicing law.

In 1963, Harry became one of the defense lawyers in the notorious Rivonia Trial, when ten leading opponents of apartheid went on trial for their lives on charges of sabotage. His client, Jimmy Kantor, was one of only two defendants who was acquitted. Harry refused to accept payment for his work. At the trial, Nelson Mandela and seven other defendants were sentenced to life imprisonment. Harry stayed in close touch with Mandela over the subsequent decades of the African National Congress leader’s 27 year incarceration, and Mandela called him “a champion of the poor.”

As a lawyer, and for a time banker, as well as longtime provincial councilman, Schwarz released a document called the “Act of Dedication” in which he laid out a plan to end apartheid in South Africa. The document called for South Africa to become a non-discriminatory society, with opportunities available for all. The Transvaal council unanimously voted for the initiative, but the National Party refused to allow debate on it in parliament. In the United Party, Harry became leader of a faction that advocated a more aggressive anti-apartheid policy. He became well-known to the public as an economic reformer and civil rights leader and was named “most feisty politician.”

A maverick, Harry was elected to Parliament in 1975, but was expelled from the party because of his liberal policy goals. The night he was kicked out of the party, he helped found the Progressive Reform Party and was elected leader. The party platform called for universal enfranchisement and equal rights for all South Africans. Harry continued to serve in Parliament for seventeen years, and was a prominent opposition leader. In 1983 he drafted a Bill of Rights to be incorporated into the constitution to ensure freedom for all. The bill was rejected five times.

Harry was such a popular and well-respected politician that he was secretly offered a cabinet position multiple times by the president and prime minister, but he refused the offers because of his opposition to apartheid. In 1991 he was appointed South African ambassador to the United States, a move widely seen as indicative of change in the South African ruling party. For an outspoken opponent of apartheid to be named to such a high-profile post sent a message to the world. Harry told the New York Times that he didn’t just represent South African whites but all South Africans. As ambassador, Harry played a key role in a dramatic improvement of relations between the two countries.

Throughout his life, Harry was a leader of the Jewish community of South Africa. His opposition to apartheid was firmly rooted in his Jewish faith. He said that Judaism was fundamentally opposed to segregating races, and said “if we rationalize or condone discrimination against one group, we have compromised our principles and we are then not true to our beliefs or our history.”

He fought anti-semitism in the halls of Parliament and made sure that incidents of antisemitism were thoroughly investigated. Harry met privately with Israeli leaders to forge closer connections between South African Jews and Jews in Israel. As a close friend and advisor to Nelson Mandela, Harry was a bulwark against anti-semitism in the ANC. He said in a 1991 interview, “I know what the word discrimination means, not because I’ve read it in a book, but because I’ve been the subject of it. And I know what it means to be hungry.”

Harry retired from politics after he returned to Johannesburg and continued to practice law and remained active in the Jewish community. He gave his last speech at Parliament in November 2009 in which he stated that “freedom is incomplete if it is exercised in poverty.”

Harry died in Johannesburg in February 2010, and was survived by his wife Annette, an artist who ran all of his election campaigns, three children and four grandchildren.

For his longtime efforts to end apartheid in South Africa, we honor Harry Swarz as this week’s Thursday Hero.

Meet other inspiring heroes!

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