/ 11 January 2009

Suzman — incorruptible and fearless

Speaking ill of the dead is a strong taboo in our African cultures. When a public figure who wasn’t well liked dies, we utter polite words and move on.

Principled, straight-talking politicians are never liked outside their own group of supporters. When they die, we merely express our condolences.

Helen Suzman was strongly disliked by those she criticised over the decades, which was more or less everybody in power or aspiring to power. As a formidable one-person force she was hated by most of her political opponents.

And yet, at Sunday’s funeral Suzman’s slight frame in a simple coffin was carried by, among others, a former apartheid ideologue and staunch Afrikaner nationalist, FW de Klerk, and three ANC liberation fighters, Kgalema Motlanthe, Paul Mashatile and Amos Masondo, who served much time in apartheid jails.

On Wednesday the political correspondent of an Afrikaans newspaper wrote in a column that Helen Suzman’s was the ultimate political legacy.

I can think of only one other politician in living memory who was honoured and praised so widely and sincerely when he died – Walter Sisulu. My recollections of and interactions with Suzman reflect the complexity of her political life. Her outspoken views antagonised both ends of the apartheid-era political spectrum.

In August 1976 two leaders of the Soweto uprising hiding in Botswana told me in an interview outside Francistown that they did not trust a single white person. ”Not even Helen Suzman?” I asked. They were momentarily confused, then one said with some bravado that Suzman was a ”bitch” and that she would always choose her white, rich friends over the struggle for black freedom. I remember thinking his insult was not very sincere.

I first met Suzman in 1977 when I was parliamentary reporter for Beeld and Die Burger. I was under the whip of Alf Ries, leader of our reporting team in the press gallery and close confidant of prime minister John Vorster. To Alf (and Vorster, of course), Suzman was the Afrikaner’s worst enemy: ”soft on communism”, disloyal to her country and in cahoots with its worst enemies. Apart from introducing myself I didn’t talk to her once during my first stint as a parliamentary reporter.

I met her again in Parliament when I went back to the press gallery for the Sunday Times in 1985. This time my political boss was editor Tertius Myburgh. Tertius was far too smooth to give her crude labels like Ries did, but I was made to understand that she was an ”unproductive political force” who completely misunderstood Afrikaner and African politics.

The first argument I had with Suzman was in February 1986 when first Van Zyl Slabbert and then Alex Boraine, the two top men in the Progressive Federal Party, resigned from Parliament. I was close to both men and knew in advance what they were planning, and my writing made it clear that I thought they were doing the right thing.

Helen was livid, saying Slabbert was unreliable and had betrayed his friends and their cause. During a conversation in the parliamentary restaurant she told me to ”grow up”, warning that the ”revolutionaries would eat you people for breakfast”.

(In my book Pale Native, published in 2003, I recorded that a senior PFP caucus member told me that Helen had said of Slabbert at the time: ”What do you expect of a bloody Afrikaner?” A week after the book hit the shelves, an upset Helen phoned me and vehemently denied ever saying this. I went back to my source, but he stuck to his guns.)

Our paths crossed again after 1987 when I was the editor of Vrye Weekblad. The newspaper was very critical of parliamentary politics at the time and more or less dismissed the PFP as an irrelevant force giving credibility to an illegitimate white parliament.

Helen accused me of being ”completely unrealistic” in my political analysis, adding: ”You as an Afrikaner should really understand our politics a little better” — the same accusation Myburgh had levelled at her. Vrye Weekblad‘s open alignment with the UDF was ”politically counterproductive”, she said.

I admired Suzman for being utterly incorruptible, straight-talking and fearless. But most of all I respected her for never changing or adjusting her fundamental beliefs and principles — unlike most of the politicians who showered her with their praises after her death.

Helen Suzman, born November 7 1917, died January 1 2009