In search of Helen Suzman

An ambitious project and mammoth responsibility - but the Apartheid Museum loses sight of significant though smaller contributions.

The Apartheid Museum describes itself in its promotional brochure as ‘an unbiased and historically accurate account of modern 20th century South Africa’. Yet it took an eagle eye and five hours to find three slight references to Helen Suzman. One appears on a text board, which most visitors to the museum appear not to read, headed ‘White opposition to Apartheid’. Secondly, there is an old Democratic Party poster with her picture on it, plastered close to the floor. The third glimpse of her, in footage from the Codesa talks, shows Suzman crossing the screen. All of these can be easily missed and are not particularly meaningful anyway. Visitors to the museum will learn little from them about the role Mrs Suzman played during apartheid, and nothing at all about her political convictions or ideology. It is not surprising that opinions differ about the amount of space that should be accorded to Mrs Suzman and other liberals. But to belittle her role almost to the point of exclusion is manipulative, dangerous and ungrateful.

Those who claim that Helen Suzman is not represented in the Apartheid Museum have simply not looked hard enough. She is there; it just took an eagle eye and five hours to find her. In fact I found reference of some sort to Suzman in three places (twice out the corner of my eye and once while reading the fine print).

The Apartheid Museum is described, in its own promotional brochure, as "an unbiased and historically accurate account of modern 20th Century South Africa". It is an ambitious project. The various displays in the museum, including artefacts, photographs, text, posters and a large collection of video footage, aim to recount "the political upheavals beginning in the last century and move to the transition from a racist state into Africa's beacon of hope as the century turned again". Its content is thus extensive, complex and provocative.

On my quest to find Helen Suzman, and to a lesser degree the representation of liberal politics during apartheid, I conducted two experiments. Firstly, I tried to forget for the afternoon that I was a political scientist and copied the behaviour of the other visitors. Most people skim - they do not spend much time reading the text boards that outline the topic at hand, certainly not word-for-word, and, even in the more passive experience of watching video footage of interviews they do not wait around to see the whole reel. Most people, it seems, prefer pictures and the more graphic, action-packed video foot-age that resonates with the turbulence and cruelty of the time.

Secondly, I tried to weigh up how much recognition should be given to Suzman. Given that her representation has to form part of an extensive archive of material and issues spanning most of a century, and that her contribution needs to be balanced against those of the myriad organisations and personalities of the time, both those opposing and those perpetuating apartheid - how much space should she occupy?

So where was Suzman hiding? Under the heading, "White opposition to Apartheid" on a text board, that it appears most people do not read, it states "White opposition to National Party rule took both parliamentary and extra-parliamentary forms and became progressively more muted as the 1950s drew on," and further "The Progressive Party proposed multi-racial common franchise with legal, educational and wealth qualifications. In the 1961 general elections, only Suzman retained her seat and until 1974, she was the lone parliamentary voice of some opposition." On the left of the board a silent video shows members of the Black Sash and Torch Commandos demonstrating outside what looks like parliament. For all I know they could have been demonstrating for shopping on Sundays.

Secondly, there is an old Democratic Party poster, plastered close to the floor on a wall covered with other political posters of the 1980s and 1990s, with a picture of Suzman. And, the third glimpse was by complete chance as Suzman crosses the screen in footage from the Codesa talks. The only other references to liberal politics I spotted occur again on video, as part of an interview with a black activist and as a snippet from the anti-apartheid film "Come Back, Africa". On both occasions liberals are presented as those nice white people that talk about black freedom from the comfort of their plush homes. So there you have it.

The limited opportunities given to the public to learn about the role Suzman played during apartheid can be easily missed and on the whole are not particularly meaningful anyway. Further, they suggest that Suzman did less as opposition parties in parliament grew smaller, that she did little outside of parliament, and do not explain the shift in support for the opposition from the mid-1970s onwards. Additionally, there is no reference to her political convictions or her ideology, so fundamental to Suzman's contribution to the anti-apartheid struggle.

But then maybe Suzman should count herself lucky, because, unless I am mistaken there is no obvious reference to key figures like Oliver Tambo or Beyers Naude. Nor is there any representation of the Inkatha Freedom Party, either in its opposition role to the United Democratic Front or in the political violence marking much of the 1980s and early 1990s.

While I do not want to fall into the trap of saying who deserves more or less attention, concentration has been clearly focused on massive resistance and the organisations and groups who formed part thereof. And, this at the expense of explaining in detail how apartheid actually worked, and, in my opinion, the contribution of liberals in general and Helen Suzman in particular.

That distortions of history occur and interpretations differ is of little surprise. But, belittled representation to the point of exclusion is manipulative, dangerous, and devoid of appreciation of individuals and small groups that made substantial contributions.