When William Lacy Swing left Port Elizabeth, South Africa in 1966, he vowed to never return until the end of Apartheid. Twenty-three years later, Swing did just that, returning to South Africa as the United States ambassador. Thanks to the relationships he had formed early on in his Foreign Service career, especially throughout his time in Port Elizabeth, Ambassador Swing was one of the first people outside the African National Conference (ANC) to welcome Nelson Mandela back to freedom.
During his first tour in South Africa, Swing served as the second of two members of the Port Elizabeth Consulate. This assignment allowed Swing to build relationships with founding members of the ANC, who were concentrated in the nearby Bantustans. At this time, Nelson Mandela was already on trial, preparing to spend the rest of his life in prison for his protest against Apartheid. When William Swing returned, South Africa was nearing the end of Apartheid and nearing Nelson Mandela’s release from prison. Meanwhile, F.W. De Klerk and the ANC were beginning private negotiations to end Apartheid. In this “moment” in U.S. diplomatic history, we see that while the U.S. was not a party to the negotiations, Ambassador Swing leveraged his connections to gain important information from key members of the ANC and his neighbor and friend, Archbishop Desmond Tutu.