Envoy from S. Africa meets protest Ambassador speaks at school fund-raiser

May 21, 1991|By S. M. Khalid

After he was finished giving his keynote address, it mattered not that Ambassador Harry H. Schwarz had given a fine speech. It didn't matter that he had spent the past 40 years of his life fighting against apartheid.

What seemed to matter most to those who attended the annual St. Frances Academy fund-raiser last night at Martin's West was the government that Mr. Schwarz had come to represent: white-ruled South Africa.

Pretoria's highest-ranking diplomat in the United States received only a lukewarm reception from a partially filled ballroom. Many of those who bought tickets for the fund-raiser chose to sit out in the lobby in protest, many supporting the sentiments of a dozen demonstrators who had picketed outside the ballroom.

"I'm not impressed," said Wendy Morris, who sat in the back of the half-filled ballroom as Ambassador Schwarz. "He was an unexpected choice. Considering the situation in South Africa, I'm just not moved by his remarks. I think our responsibility is to keep up the pressure on our government until apartheid is no longer in existence."

"I have great reservations because I oppose apartheid," said Melvin Lyle. "I think they should have invited somebody else."

Mr. Lyle, like several others, said he was displeased that he had not been informed before buying tickets that Ambassador Schwarz would be speaking. Earlier in the day, the black nuns and staff who run St. Frances, the nation's oldest black Roman Catholic inner-city school, had bowed to community pressure and boycotted their own fund-raiser.

The local archdiocese issued a statement late yesterday protesting the ambassador's speech at the fund-raiser, calling his presence "regrettable."

"Who is he representing?" said the Rev. Daki Napati, a local activist, who led a handful of demonstrators. "He's an official of the South African government, which is a racist, repressive and unrepresentative government."

The invitation came at the suggestion of local human rights activist Alleck Resnick and was later approved by the school's board.

"I read about Ambassador Schwarz," said Mr. Resnick. "I knew about his background. I said, would it not be great to have him as a keynote speaker? I knew it might be controversial, but we're acknowledging the works of one man. For me, if I'm black and I know the story, I would say, 'Thank you.' "

Despite some political reforms by the South African government, many questioned the wisdom of inviting a representative of that government to speak so close to what is considered the cradle of the nation's anti-apartheid movement.

Even Baltimore's first black mayor, Clarence H. "Du" Burns, who shared the dais with the ambassador, questioned the choice of Mr. Schwarz as speaker.

"He's a good man," said Mr. Burns. "He speaks well. But apartheid is still there, and people are upset. They assured me three or four weeks ago that there were no problems. If it was up to me, I would have questioned it."

Ambassador Schwarz, who fled with his family as a small boy from Nazi Germany, made the best of an uncomfortable situation. He spoke graciously with reporters about his belief in a future South African democracy where each person has an equal vote.

He even surprised fund-raisers and security men by walking out of the ballroom before his address to speak with demonstrators.

"I said, 'Down with apartheid' before some of them [demonstrators] were born," said the ambassador, who said he had faced bricks, stones and insults from apartheid supporters in the past.

"I was supporting the dismantling of apartheid when America was standing on the sidelines and only a few people knew what apartheid was about.

"The fact is that apartheid is going and will go," said Mr. Schwarz. "They don't know what's happening in South Africa. I'm understanding. I don't bear them malice."

Ironically, despite his reception, Mr. Schwarz said that he had been approached by a host of African diplomats in Washington about resuming diplomatic ties and expanding economic links with South Africa.

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