Celebrating Helen Suzman – A Bright Star in a Dark Chamber

It is not for me to comment on the recent spat between the DA and the ANC regarding the use of the photograph of Nelson Mandela and Helen Suzman. The Foundation holds no copyright over this photograph. However, as the Director of the Foundation that bears her name, I wish to respond to aspects of the recent, ill judged statements by the ANC’s parliamentary spokesperson, Mr Moloto Mothapo, that were published by the Mail & Guardian (April 26 to May 2, 2013: p.34).

Mr Mothapo seeks to undermine the important role Helen Suzman played in the struggle against Apartheid.  In this response, I cannot correct all of his inaccuracies, half-truths and misrepresentations. However, I must respond to the claim that, by her participation in Parliament, Helen Suzman somehow served to “legitimise an unjust order”, and even “made her complicit in the horrors unleashed against the majority, and made her role morally indefensible”.  These charges are a grotesque distortion of the truth.

It is striking that Mr Mothapo’s recent statement is in sharp contrast to the previous acknowledgment by the ANC, after her death on 1 January 2009, that it "remembers and respects the contribution of Suzman towards the demise of apartheid". The President himself attended her funeral. Mr Mothapo seeks to dismiss the ANC acknowledgment by putting it down to his interpretation of Ubuntu which, he suggests, teaches us never to talk ill of the departed.  However, the tradition not to speak ill of the dead cannot, by its nature, explain comments made about a person in their own lifetime.  I wish to recall a few of the acknowledgments made by eminent leaders of the anti-Apartheid struggle regarding Suzman’s role. These were made long before she passed away in 2009.  

In 1963, Albert Luthuli, then President of the ANC, wrote to Helen Suzman and expressed his “deep appreciation and admiration for your heroic and lone stand against a most reactionary Parliament...I most heartily congratulate you for your untiring efforts in a situation that would frustrate and benumb many... For ever remember, you are a bright Star in a dark Chamber...Not only ourselves – your contemporaries, but also posterity, will hold you in high esteem”. 

In 1964, Ruth First wrote to Helen Suzman stating “I admire tremendously your sledge-hammer attack on [the 90 day detention law] and so many other vital issues. In the House at least you have to fight almost single handed and, apart from the scandal that the real anti-Nationalist fight has been whittled down to the efforts of one intrepid member, you seem to get in as many blows as any team could manage.”

In 1965, Veronica Sobukwe (wife of Robert Sobukwe) wrote describing her as a “parliamentarian of outstanding competence, whose integrity is unimpeachable and one who has made a name for herself as an untiring champion of liberty for all men, irrespective of race, colour or creed.”

In 1986, Winnie Mandela wrote (in a manuscript inscription on a book she gave her) to her “dearest friend Helen” and predicted, “one day the nation will honour your tremendous work – your fight for our human rights. You’ve always truly been one of us”.  In 2007, Winnie Madikizela–Mandela again wrote calling her a “wonderful faithful loyal friend...not only for me but every black South African whose life you have touched.”

In 1989, upon her retirement and while he was still incarcerated in Victor Verster Prison, Nelson Mandela paid tribute to Helen Suzman in the following terms “None can do more than her duty on earth. The countless tributes you received on your retirement from Parliament show that you acquitted yourself beyond words.” 

Nelson Mandela went on to recognise her important role in the demise of Apartheid and the emergence of a democratic South Africa.  In 1995, in a further manuscript inscription, he described her as a “redoubtable veteran of many campaigns” and one “who has contributed impressively to the victory of the democratic forces of our country”.   In 1998, he wrote again, calling her “a world famous veteran freedom fighter who has earned enormous respect far beyond the borders of our country”.  In 2002, in a message for her 85th birthday, he paid tribute to her and noted that her “courage, integrity and principled commitment to justice have marked you as one of the outstanding figures in the history of public life in South Africa” and to let her know “how fortunate our country feels for having had you as part of its public life and politics”. 

These statements were made when Helen Suzman was very much alive. They cannot be explained away by the tradition of not speaking ill of the dead.

What did Suzman do to deserve this acknowledgement and praise? Were all of these freedom fighters mistaken? They were not.

She stood up in Parliament and opposed Apartheid unequivocally.  For 13 years, she was the only MP to do so. She took on every Apartheid bill and subjected it to criticism of the most penetrating, detailed and coruscating kind.  Utterly fearless and devastatingly articulate, she confronted the scores of Nationalist MPs and bullying Ministers. She took them on, time after time, in speech after speech. Mr Mothapo speaks nonsense when he seeks to imply that she supported bills that “limited the rights of black South Africans”. Contrary to Mr Mothapo’s suggestion, she consistently opposed racial discrimination of any kind. She opposed the Tricameral Parliament in 1983 because it sought to permanently disenfranchise Black South Africans. And, to avoid any doubt, her non-racial approach always extended to the franchise.  It is correct that, in the early days, her party was in favour of a franchise based on certain basic educational or property qualification. It was never one qualified by race, and from 1978, the party supported an entirely unqualified and universal adult franchise. Suzman was unwavering in her support for a Bill of Rights and the principle of the Rule of Law - defining features of our current liberal constitutional democracy.

It is a matter of public record that she not merely vociferously opposed the use of violence by the Apartheid regime, but repeatedly exposed in Parliament many of its worst instances. 

Indeed, one of Helen Suzman’s most important contributions was to use her Parliamentary position to highlight the injustices and violence of Apartheid and bringing to light facts that would otherwise have been covered up. She did this by posing question after question in the House, thereby evading the censorship that then existed and bringing numerous iniquities to light. When told by a Minister that her questions were an embarrassment to South Africa, she famously retorted that it was not her questions but his answers that were the cause of the embarrassment.  She also famously and repeatedly called for Nelson Mandela’s release – as for so many other political prisoners.  This is all recorded in Hansard.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, she used her Parliamentary position to assist the many victims of Apartheid.  With her famous expression “go and see for yourself”, she purposefully went to see what was happening, and she acted on what she saw - often with crucial implications for people’s lives.   In particular, she played an unparalleled role in visiting prisons and improving conditions for political prisoners. 

Mr Mothapo refers to Anthony Sampson’s mention in his Authorized Biography of her disagreements with Nelson Mandela over the use of violence. But he omits to quote Mr Sampson’s other text: “Mandela was convinced that Suzman was basically on the prisoners' side.  ‘It was an odd and wonderful sight’ he wrote, ‘to see this courageous woman peering into our cells and strolling around our courtyard’. Suzman reported back on the inhuman conditions...Soon afterwards...conditions began to improve.  The prisoners saw Suzman’s visit as a turning point: had she not come, wrote Neville Alexander, ‘there is no saying what might have happened’”. Her all-important visits to Robben Island, and the improvements in the prisoners' lives that derived from them, were just the tip of the iceberg. She visited the banned and the banished.  She fought to obtain amnesties and passports and exit visas for countless political (and non political) prisoners. She pleaded for scores and scores of individuals who were victims of the pass laws and group areas and racial classification. She took up the causes of literally hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals. She used her powers of persuasion and threats of exposure with ministers and officials to obtain redress.  Her desk was a veritable harvest of the seeds of Apartheid and she worked tirelessly to try to help every one of those that sought her assistance, black, white or coloured, rich or poor, famous or unknown.  

Mr Mothapo suggests that she enjoyed the “comfort and privileges of the apartheid parliament”. This is a travesty of the truth.  For her work in opposing Apartheid she was vilified and abused, in Parliament and out. Her phone was tapped, her letters opened; she received abusive phone calls and death threats. Hers was a difficult and immensely courageous stand.

Helen Suzman disagreed with the ANC about the use of violence and about the advisability of sanctions against South Africa.  Like many other eminent liberals, she believed that economic development combined with peaceful mass action and union activity would be the more appropriate and effective means to hasten the demise of Apartheid.  Whether they were right or wrong, is for historians to debate.  But these were differences about tactics, not about the desired objective.

Mr Mothapo cites a statement by Joe Slovo in 1983 that "Mrs Suzman and I may both be against apartheid but we are certainly not both for liberation". It is not entirely clear what Mr Slovo, a fearless fighter against Apartheid but also a supporter, then, of Soviet-style Communism meant by “liberation”. But, at least when it came to Nelson Mandela’s position, it is clear that, while differing on the methods of achieving it, they shared essentially the same objective. That objective was the creation of a non racial and genuine democracy for South Africa, with basic freedoms and the Rule of Law. In July 1989, Nelson Mandela wrote to Helen Suzman making this very point. He wrote: “the consistency with which you have defended the basic values of freedom of the rule of law over the last three decades has earned you the admiration of many South Africans. A wide gap still exists between the mass democratic movement and your party with regard to the method of attaining those values. But your commitment to a non-racial democracy in a united South Africa has won you many friends in the extra-parliamentary movement”.

In the forward to her autobiography, Nelson Mandela records Helen Suzman’s “magnificent battle against apartheid” and, as recently as 2007, in a letter on her 90th birthday, he reiterated that her “role in the struggle against apartheid and in the building of democracy was an extraordinary one – one not easy to forget, and one that should never be forgotten”.  I therefore trust I am not alone in believing that Mr Mothapo has misrepresented Helen Suzman’s contribution. We should never forget her extraordinary public role, a role which should be celebrated by everyone in our democracy, including Mr Mothapo.

Francis Antonie

Helen Suzman Foundation

2 May 2013