Assaulting the present and controlling the past

Why Helen Suzman is a veteran of the liberation struggle.

Several new developments have occurred since the article on corruption in this issue was completed: 1) the Scorpions sent 35 questions to Jacob Zuma as part of their investigation into allegations that he solicited a protection fee from a French armaments company; these were subsequently published in the Sunday Times; 2) Zuma accused the Scorpions and director of public prosecutions Bulelani Ngcuka of leaking the questions to the newspaper; 3) ANC secretary-general Kgalema Motlanthe criticised Ngcuka’s conduct of the investigation; 4) the future of the Scorpions as an independent agency was threatened. Each of these is fraught with serious implications but the prospect that the Scorpions could become a subordinate unit of the SAPS is the most disturbing of all, since they are the most visible indication of the government’s commitment to eradicate corruption even at the highest levels. The light sentences imposed on Toni Yengeni and Mosiuoa Lekota by the ANC disciplinary committee have already sent worrying messages about the party’s will to pursue the anti-corruption campaign without favour. What is urgently needed now is a speedy investigation into the allegations against Zuma; if there is a case against him, he must be indicted as soon as possible.

The contribution of liberal South Africans to the demise of apartheid is under increasing attack, judging by the letter columns of the print media and by the contributions to phone-in radio programmes. A favourite target for these often-bitter attacks is Helen Suzman, the doyenne of South African liberalism. Her presence in parliament under the old order is not infrequently portrayed as a form of collaboration with the protagonists of apartheid in the once dominant National Party. Her acceptance of a salary cheque during her many years in parliament is equated with the receipt of blood money.

These verbal assaults should be seen in the context of the scanty recognition of Suzman in the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg. Suzman - who for 13 years was the sole genuine, and indefatigable, liberal voice in the old whites-only parliament - is reduced to a mere peripheral figure in the struggle against apartheid.

No acknowledgement is accorded to her as a representative who constantly exposed the injustices of apartheid, who combined protest against the solitary confinement of South Africans arrested without trial with exposure of the brutal uprooting of whole communities of black people in the interests of a cruel and doctrinaire ideology. No recognition is given to her persistently trenchant criticism of the pass laws, her fight for the release of Nelson Mandela and her opposition - without the support of a single one of her parliamentary colleagues - to the continued internment of Robert Sobukwe of the Pan Africanist Congress after he had served the prison sentence imposed on him for his role in the 1960 demonstrations against the pass laws.

The downgrading of Suzman's contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle may signify more than deficient attention to the facts and perhaps even more than a malicious refusal to reflect the facts. It may be the start of a dangerous development: the beginning of an insidious process of re-writing history that will eventually seep into official history textbooks and lead to future generations who will know nothing of Suzman or, for that matter, honourable liberals of the calibre of Alan Paton, Peter Brown, Margaret Ballinger and Edgar Brookes. It is apposite to recall George Orwell's warning in Nineteen Eighty Four: "Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past".

One of the arguments cited against Suzman is that she served in the old segregated parliament. The underlying premise is that by doing so she condoned and even legitimated the notion of racially separate political institutions and hence apartheid. Apart from familiarising themselves with her speeches in parliament, those who make that assumption should read an article written by Mandela in February 1958, particularly if they were born after that date. It is entitled, Our struggle needs many tactics.

Mandela argues in the article against the proposition that racially separate institutions should be boycotted as a matter of principle, contending that it depends on the time and situation. Boycott might be an appropriate response at a particular time and situation but unwise at another, he avers in his commentary. He specifically draws a distinction between "stooges" whose motives for serving in parliament were to collaborate with the apartheid government of the day and those whose motivation was to "strengthen the people's struggle" against the oppressive apartheid system.

The penultimate sentence in the article reads as follows: "The parliamentary forum must be exploited to put the case for a democratic and progressive South Africa. Let the democratic movement have a voice both inside and outside South Africa." The statement was addressed primarily to ANC members but it resonates with what Suzman was doing at that juncture: she was an MP and, together with some of her confreres, seeking to transform the United Party into a more vigorous opposition party, a process that led in 1959 to the formation of the Progressive Party, of which Suzman was the sole representative in parliament from 1961 to 1974.

Any fair assessment of Suzman's role in parliament must recognise that she contributed to the struggle for democracy. Liberal International thinks so: it awarded her its freedom prize last year in recognition of her outstanding work in promoting "democracy and human rights in South Africa". So, too, does Mandela himself: she was his guest at a luncheon in April that he hosted for veterans of the liberation struggle.