JOHANNESBURG, South Africa--An editorial cartoon published in a local newspaper recently showed Harry Schwarz, a South African and longtime foe of apartheid, being grilled mercilessly by a group of suspicious American reporters.
Had Schwarz, they demanded to know, suddenly defected to the government camp?
"I haven't joined them," Schwarz protests. "They've joined me."
Schwarz has uttered those words again and again since President Frederik W. de Klerk appointed him South African ambassador to the United States--a move akin to President Bush sending someone like his 1988 Democratic opponent, Michael S. Dukakis, as his envoy to Moscow.
Schwarz has been a political opponent of the South African government, and De Klerk's ruling National Party, for as long as anyone can remember.
He was a key figure in the liberal Democratic Party, the current home of such luminaries as Helen Suzman, the longtime white anti-apartheid crusader who recently retired in 1989 after serving 36 years in South Africa's parliament. And he has bitterly fought National Party policies throughout his distinguished 41-year career in politics.
But much has changed in South Africa in the 18 months since De Klerk stepped up from former President Pieter W. Botha's Cabinet, took the reins of government and guided the country on a galloping reform program. Now the party that instituted apartheid is dismantling apartheid. And most of the old rules of politics here no longer apply.
"The reality is that the policies of De Klerk are actually what we have been advocating all along," Schwarz said in a recent interview. "So my appointment, which people don't understand, makes sense. Is it right that somebody should go to Washington to advocate the old South Africa? Or should we advocate the new South Africa?"
And sending a man with the liberal credentials of Harry Schwarz to Washington may turn to be a masterstroke for the South African government.
"It tells me that De Klerk is a very shrewd politician," said Anthoni van Nieuwkerk, a policy analyst with the independent South African Institute for International Affairs.
Van Nieuwkerk and other analysts say the appointment will go a long way toward persuading those Americans who still doubt the government's sincerity and will help De Klerk expand his support base among liberal whites inside South Africa.
And Schwarz's business contacts in South Africa, nurtured during his tenure as finance expert for the Democratic Party, may come in handy when President Bush and Congress decide to dismantle the stiff U.S. trade sanctions against Pretoria, a move that may come this year.
"Harry is a staunch capitalist, and he fits into the bigger scheme of things as De Klerk sees it," Van Nieuwkerk said. "If the negotiating process finally gets under way, Harry could play a crucial role" in renewing trade ties between American and South African businesses.
But whatever role he adopts in Washington, Schwarz will not be a reticent diplomat. He may not even be very diplomatic. His friends--and his political enemies--know him as an outspoken and fierce advocate who is beholden to no one.
"Schwarz was an awkward man to have at a party," a regularly featured columnist known only as Hogarth wrote recently in the Sunday Times newspaper in South Africa. He was "perpetually given to fierce arguments on some or other rabbinical point of principle, and he usually led an army of one."
But, the columnist added, "in his grasp of policy, his feeling for the people, and his parliamentary skill, he had no peer."
Some in his party who remain suspicious of De Klerk's reform program were dismayed that Schwarz accepted the job. But, as usual, Schwarz didn't pay much attention to his critics. And most of his colleagues considered it "the cherry on top after a long career," according to Peter Soal, the Democratic Party spokesman and a Schwarz admirer.
"But he won't be a passive representative, I'll tell you that," Soal warned with a chuckle. "He won't be going to Washington to indulge himself in retirement."
Schwarz, a 66-year-old lawyer, admits to being a man of strong opinions, which he attributes to an upbringing that was far different from that of most whites in South Africa.
Harry Heinz Schwarz was born in Cologne, Germany, in 1924, and one of his earliest memories was seeing a street brawl between Communists and a procession of Nazis near his home.
His father, worried about the future of Jews in Germany, moved the family to South Africa when Harry was 10 years old. It was the depth of the Depression and the family struggled, living at first in one room. Harry spoke no English at first and he remembers being taunted on the schoolyard for being different.
"I know two things which I think people here in the black community know," he said recently. "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."