CAPE TOWN, South Africa — Only four years ago, Pretoria was the target of world rage. A package of U.S. sanctions was biting down hard, African governments were demanding even greater isolation and the South African ambassador to the United Nations challenged the world to "do your damnedest" to make his country change.
Those were dark days for South Africa's diplomatic corps.
And into the fray walked a new director general of South Africa's Department of Foreign Affairs. Urbane, thoughtful and well-spoken, Neil Peter van Heerden nevertheless had his work cut out for him as the second-ranking diplomat from a country ostracized by the world.
"The world had a very strong moral objection to what was happening in South Africa," Van Heerden recalled recently. "Some of it was justified and some due to polarizing."
"Of course, not everyone accusing us had clean hands," he added. "But it was easy for them. We had laws on the statute books that discriminated and that's all they had to say. You could give reasons, historical and social, but in the end you were swimming against the current."
All that has now changed, due in no small part to the efforts of Van Heerden, a 52-year-old government official of whom even the most careful readers of newspapers have never heard. And that may be why he's so successful in the art of diplomacy.
Van Heerden was one of the behind-the-scenes architects of peace in Angola, where South African soldiers were fighting Soviet-supported Cuban and Angolan troops until just a few years ago, and the long-delayed independence in Namibia, which South Africa had ruled for 75 years. Most analysts saw the peaceful settlement of those conflicts as a precursor, if not the catalyst, for change inside South Africa.
At the same time, Van Heerden was trying to keep diplomatic doors open around the world, but especially among South Africa's most vocal critics in Africa. He seems to have succeeded, and Pretoria's foreign service network is expanding rapidly.
South Africa will have opened 15 new offices abroad by the end of the year, bringing the total to 73 missions in more than 50 countries. That roster includes new offices in Moscow, Warsaw, Prague and Budapest as well as new African missions in Togo, Ivory Coast and Madagascar. (In the United States, Pretoria has five offices, including a consulate in Beverly Hills.)
These days Van Heerden is regarded--by foreign ambassadors and even by many in the African National Congress--as one of the country's most able and effective representatives and, perhaps, a key player in future negotiations for a new constitution.
"He's a damn good diplomat," said Chester A. Crocker, assistant secretary of state for African affairs during the Ronald Reagan Administration and now a professor of diplomacy at Georgetown University. "He's often described as being cool as a cucumber. And it's true that he's cool. He always manages to maintain an equilibrium of presence."
William Lacy Swing, U.S. ambassador to South Africa, described Van Heerden as "one of the finest diplomats I've encountered in about 30 years in this business."
"He's a diplomat's diplomat," Swing added. "He has finesse as well as firmness and he's a master of detail without ever losing sight of the big picture. He's also a true intellectual with a sense of what's doable."
Even the African National Congress, which tried for 30 years to overthrow the Pretoria government by force, acknowledges its respect for Van Heerden.
"We have good relations with Foreign Affairs," said Thabo Mbeki, the ANC's foreign affairs chief. Mbeki says the ANC would want to change the overwhelmingly white makeup of Foreign Affairs, where it is said that 960 of the 1,000 diplomats are white.
"That cannot continue," Mbeki said. But Mbeki, who himself is often mentioned as a candidate for foreign minister in a post-apartheid South African government, would like Van Heerden and other capable foreign service officers to play a role in the new South Africa, even one under ANC control.
"There's a place for them," Mbeki said. "You see, the mind-set has changed for a lot of people."
Nowhere is the new mind-set more evident than in Pretoria's Foreign Affairs Department, the international salesmen for President Frederik W. de Klerk's "new South Africa."
"We can walk a lot taller now than we ever could," Van Heerden said. He added that his job now is to "ease all of us (the ANC and the government) out of the hard and fast positions of yesterday, without anyone losing face."