Harry Schwarz (born Heinz Schwarz) was born in Cologne, Germany (Weimar Republic) on 13 May 1924. Growing up in a Jewish family, Schwarz witnessed the rise of the Nazi regime. He was subject to the Third Reich’s racial laws against Jews, notably, as a young child being thrown off a tram for being a Jew. In 1934, Schwarz, his younger brother Kurt and his mother Alma left Germany for South Africa travelling on the SS Giulio Cesaro, which left from Genoa, Italy. His father, Fritz, an anti-Nazi campaigner of the Social Democratic Party, left Germany on the night Hitler was elected into power, after being tipped off by friends in the police that he was to be arrested.
Schwarz and his family arrived in Cape Town, Cape Province (now Western Cape). He attended Tamboerskloof School and later South African College Schools, both in Cape Town.Having used all their assets to cover the costs of fleeing Germany, Schwarz’s family struggled financially throughout the 1930s. Being only able to afford a one room flat in Kloof Street initially, Schwarz slept in a rusty bath. Being unable to speak English or Afrikaans at first, he had strong memories of being taunted on the schoolyard for being different. Interviewed in 1991, Schwarz stated that, "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."
In October 1936, Schwarz’s grandparents arrived in Cape Town on the SS Stuttgart, the last ship carrying Jewish refugees from Europe to be permitted into South Africa. Waiting on the dock for their arrival, Schwarz aged 12, witnessed a demonstration against the arrival of Jewish refugees led by H. F. Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid and later Prime Minister of South Africa.
Schwarz’s family later relocated to Johannesburg, Transvaal (now Gauteng) where he attended Jeppe High School for Boys. While there, one of his front teeth was knocked out during a fight with an older student after he called Schwarz a “bloody Jew”.
The discrimination and financial difficulties of Schwarz’s family left a strong impression on him and helped shape his political philosophy with its emphasis on social justice and the rule of law.
Upon graduation from Jeppe in 1943, Harry opted to join the South African Air Force. Despite a job offer from a stockbroker following Schwarz’s good academic results and the potential for a scholarship to Rhodes University, Schwarz was determined to join the global effort confronting the Third Reich. He enlisted at Military Headquarters of the Union Grounds in Johannesburg,
Having attended boarding school, Schwarz adapted well to his stationing at Lyttelton Air base near Pretoria, Transvaal. He became an observer (navigator and bomb aimer) as part of the 15 Squadron, nicknamed the “Aegean Pirates”.
During his first posting to Cairo, Egypt he adopted the name Harry following advice from his commanding officer that the name Heinz Schwarz would not leave him in good standing if he were captured by Germans.
During his operations over the Aegean Sea, the Mediterranean and mainland Europe, Schwarz flew in Baltimore aircraft. Throughout the war, his Squadron was stationed in Libya, Egypt, Italy, Malta and Crete. Schwarz’s Squadron along with other Allied planes attacked and sank the SS Giulio Cesaro, the ship that brought Schwarz and his family to the safety of South Africa as a refugee, to avoid it being used by the Axis powers.
Returning to South Africa after the end of World War II, he studied law at the University of Witwatersrand (Wits) with the help of a government loan and grant. It was at Wits where Schwarz began his lifelong friendship with Nelson Mandela, who was in his law class.
Schwarz’s first political engagement came in the 1948 election, when he campaigned for the incumbent United Party (UP) led by Jan Smuts, who he considered to be his hero. Schwarz later remarked of the National Party (NP) victory, “As a young man, it was very objectionable to me that the very people I had been fighting against were the people that the National Party had supported”. As a result of the NP victory, Schwarz became move involved in politics. He was elected chair of the university United Party branch, president of the university's ex-servicemen's league and chair of the Law Students Council.
While stationed in the Western Desert, Schwarz had enrolled at the University of South Africa to do a part-time B.A. degree, yet only wrote the examinations when back in South Africa in 1945. In 1946 (graduation in 1947), he was awarded a BA, with distinctions in both history and economical history. He was later awarded an LLB by Wits.
In 1949 Schwarz was admitted as an attorney, and later as a barrister (Member of Middle Temple) in London, United Kingdom and, in 1953, became an advocate at the South African Bar.
Schwarz's organised anti-apartheid campaigning began with co-founding the Torch Commando, an ex-servicemen’s movement to protest against the disenfranchisement of Coloured people in South Africa. Its members included World War II flying ace Adolph Malan, and at its height had 250,000 members.
Schwarz’s political career started with his election to the Johannesburg City Council in 1951 for Booysens, which had been said to be an unwinnable seat against the NP. Despite being the youngest person on the city council, Schwarz became Chair of the Council's Management Committee - the most influential committee on the council. While in the Council, Schwarz focused on opposing forced evictions of black and coloured people in Johannesburg, and attempted to improve housing and education conditions.
In 1958 Schwarz was elected to the Transvaal Provincial Council representing the Hospital constituency (later renamed Hillbrow). From 1963 to 1974 he served as leader of the opposition in the Council.
Throughout Schwarz’s political career, he maintained a private legal practice. He would often take on cases fighting for the rights of Blacks, Coloured persons and the underprivileged. Most notably, Schwarz served on the defence team of the Rivonia Trial that saw his former classmate Nelson Mandela amongst others imprisoned. Schwarz acted for Accused No. 8 James Kantor, who was the legal partner and brother-in-law of Accused No. 8 Harold Wolpe. Schwarz refused any payment from Kantor. At the end of the Trial, Kantor and Lionel Bernstein were the only defendants to be acquitted. After the Trial, Schwarz left the South African Bar in order to concentrate on politics.
Beginning in the late 1960s, Schwarz rose to national prominence as a rising political star. He emerged as the leader of the liberal anti-apartheid faction of the United Party, dubbed the "Young Turks”. Schwarz and his political allies, based in the Transvaal, sought to create a UP that would aggressively oppose NP racial policies, and in his view, form a credible alternative government to the apartheid regime. Such efforts were rigorously opposed by the “old guard” faction of the party, particularly the party’s leader, Sir De Villiers Graaff
Internal divisions in the party between liberals and conservatives came to a head in August 1973 when Schwarz ousted long-time MP Marais Steyn from the Transvaal leadership of the UP. Schwarz had campaigned against Steyn’s emphasis upon maintaining “white leadership” in South Africa. Following his shock victory, the South African press dubbed Schwarz as the “deputy leader” of the United Party. Shortly after, Steyn defected to the National Party.
On 4 January 1974, Schwarz met with Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi and signed the Mahlabatini Declaration of Faith. The Declaration embodied Schwarz and Buthelezi’s vision for a post-apartheid South Africa. It outlined both the approach and broad substance of any future deal by affirming faith in a South Africa of "equal opportunity, happiness, security and people for all its people". It affirmed that political and social change in South Africa must take place through “peaceful means”.The Declaration marked the first time in South African history that acknowledged white and black political leaders had subscribed to such ideas.
While receiving praise from many Black and liberal White leaders, the declaration angered conservative members of the UP and drew condemnation and ridicule from politicians of the NP and NP supporting press.
In April 1974, Schwarz was elected to the South African Parliament representing Yeoville. Other members of his “Young Turks”, notably Dick Enthoven, David Dalling and Horace van Rensburg, were elected to Parliament.
In February 1975, Schwarz was called upon to publically reprimand Dick Enthoven in Parliament for his anti-apartheid policies. In a dramatic speech to Parliament on 11 Feburary, Schwarz vowed, "I make no secret of it. I am my brother's keeper. I will not be his executioner". For not “following the party line”, he was expelled by party leader Sir De Villiers Graaff.
Schwarz’s expulsion and other resignations that followed led to the creation of the Reform Party, of which Schwarz was elected leader. The party’s constitution incorporated the principles of the Mahlabatini Declaration of Faith, and called for a non-discriminatory society.
Six months later, Schwarz merged the Reform Party with the Progressive Party (PP) to create the Progressive Reform Party, after approval by congresses held by each party.
Schwarz agreed not to stand for the leadership of the new party in favour of Progressive Party leader Colin Eglin. He was instead appointed as chairman of the federal executive, and also served as finance and defence spokesman.
Throughout his time in Parliament (1974 to 1991), Schwarz forcefully denounced NP racial legislation that constituted the apartheid regime. He was regarded as one of the opposition’s “star performers” in Parliament. As his party’s Shadow Finance Minister from 1977 to 1991, Schwarz played an important role in opposing economic and financial policy of the NP. He served as deputy chair of the Parliamentary Standing Committee on Finance and was on the Parliamentary Public Accounts Committee. As the PFP’s chief spokesman on information, Schwarz played an important role in the Information Scandal in the late 1970s that ultimately led to President B.J. Vorster’s resignation.
In November 1989, Schwarz was granted access to visit Nelson Mandela in prison. His previous requests to visit Mandela since the Rivonia Trial had been refused by Justice Minister Coetzee. After his visit, Schwarz reiterated his call for the "immediate and unconditional" release of Mandela, stating that this was "in the interest of all South Africans - Black and White - that this should happen as soon as possible".
Eight months after the unbanning of the ANC and the release of Nelson Mandela, President F.W. De Klerk appointed Schwarz as the South African ambassador to the United States of America (USA), South Africa’s highest diplomatic position. Before accepting the position, Schwarz went to see old friends Nelson Mandela and Joe Slovo, who gave him backing for his appointment. His appointment marked the first time in South African history that a member of an opposition party had been appointed as an ambassador. The appointment of Schwarz, a well-known anti-apartheid campaigner, was widely heralded in and outside South Africa as highly symbolic of the South African government’s commitment to dismantling apartheid.
Schwarz arrived in Washington D.C., USA, in March 1991, and began marketing the process of democratisation in South Africa to the USA government and the world.
During Schwarz's tenure, he oversaw the lifting of USA sanctions against South Africa, assisted in negotiating a $600 million aid package from President Bill Clinton, encouraged outside investment in South Africa and signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty.
After the first free elections in South Africa of 1994, he was requested to remain as ambassador by President Mandela. Schwarz agreed and hosted South Africa’s first Black President during his state visit to Washington in October 1994. In 1993 when diplomatic relations opened up, he was given the honour of serving as the first South African High Commissioner to Barbados.
In November 1991, Schwarz returned with his wife Annette to Johannesburg, and returned to his private legal practice. Harry and Annette had been married since 1952. They have three children, Jonathan, Allan and Michael, and four grandchildren. Annette, a philanthropic worker and accomplished artist, ran all of Schwarz’s election campaigns.
Schwarz and his wife were heavily involved in philanthropic causes. Upon their return from Washington, they devoted all the earnings Schwarz had earned as ambassador to establish a charitable trust for the underprivileged.
Schwarz delivered his final public speech at the South African Parliament in November 2009 at an event celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of the formation of the Progressive Party. During his speech he warned that "freedom is incomplete if it is exercised in poverty", a phrase he used throughout his political career.
On the morning of 5 February 2010, Harry Schwarz passed away in Johannesburg, with family by his side. He was laid to rest on 7 February, at a funeral attended by hundreds of family members, friends, colleagues and public figures.