/ 1 March 2009

Helen Suzman: The woman who changed a nation

Those drunk with power in South Africa will get their comeuppance, warned Archbishop Desmond Tutu on Sunday.

"Those who become arrogant, who become drunk with power, who seemingly are unassailable: Watch out," said Tutu at a memorial service for veteran anti-apartheid politician Helen Suzman in Johannesburg.

"The Nats were returned election after election with increasing majority. Waar is hulle nou? Those who hold power and are afflicted by arrogance must know they are ultimately going to get their comeuppance, for ultimately power is service."

Tutu said Suzman's legacy was of true public service.

"Don't let's sideline people because of their ethnicity or political affiliation. Ours is a scintillating success waiting to happen.”

Tutu said South Africans should remember, through Suzman's example, that "our freedom has been won from the endeavours of many stalwarts of many races. The nation owes its existence to a remarkably diverse group of races.

"No group can claim legitimacy through ethnicity. South Africa belongs to all who dwell here. All of us are sons and daughters of the land."

Tutu said Suzman's life should show South Africans that people could have different viewpoints and still show civil courtesy to each other.

"Public discourse should not sink to the level of the gutter," he said.

He said debate could be vigorous and animated, but had to be ultimately compelling through its coherency.

"Don't raise your voice, improve your argument." he said.

Tutu also said the country should learn through Suzman not to tolerate corruption.

"Those in public office should be principled people, not embarrassments that need to be defended."

Suzman died on January 1 2009 aged 91, at her home in Johannesburg. She was recognised as the most effective parliamentary fighter against the former National Party's apartheid policies.

Earlier, photographers swarmed around Thabo and Zanele Mbeki as they arrived and took their seats in the front row of the Great Hall at Wits University for the memorial service.

Graça Machel, former DA leader Tony Leon, Constitutional Court Judge Albie Sachs and Raenette Taljaard, head of the Suzman Foundation, were also in attendance.

Dr Mamphela Ramphele received a standing ovation for her tribute to Suzman's "exemplary public service".

She said questions had to be asked as to why South Africans had started to accept corruption.

"Why are we silent in the face of a culture of impunity in our public service?

"How are we, as citizens, exercising our agency to demand integrity and ethics in our politicians," she asked.

"Helen took risks to challenge the NP government of bullies … because that was a system that was brutal.

"Why are our MPs unwilling to think for themselves when all they stand to lose are their privileges."

Ramphele said South Africa's democracy was at risk for the first time since the end of apartheid.

Businessman Nicky Oppenheimer said Suzman showed us that, 'we needed that voice that speaks truth to power then and we need it now".

"The void her silence has left speaks far more loudly than I can."

Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille said: "Helen spoke out when it was most difficult to do so, both before and after 1994."

"She was interested, engaged and involved right up until her death."

Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi said Suzman was a "tiny lady" but a "lioness in stature”.

"Her glorious contribution was as great as any other struggle hero," he said.

Former Progressive Party politician Colin Eglin said Suzman was more than a parliamentarian.

"She was a political activist who used Parliament as a platform."

Centre for Development Enterprises' head Ann Bernstein said Suzman was South Africa's greatest parliamentarian and human rights activist, who "stretched" a white's only Parliament to become "the MP for the millions of people denied the vote".

"Without her much in that terrible period would have passed unquestioned and unnoticed."

Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke said he had a "virtual love affair" with Suzman, from the time she used to visit him and many other political prisoners like Nelson Mandela, Walter Sisulu, Robert Sobukwe and Ahmed Kathrada on Robben Island.

He said she fought for many prisoners' rights, including their right to study.

"That much I owe her for the career I follow," he said.

In a video tribute dressed as alter-ego Evita Bezuidenhout, Pieter-Dirk Uys said Suzman had been like "a chihuahua on tik" in speaking out against apartheid.

"Thank you, darling Helen, for showing that one woman can change the whole history of a nation," said Uys. – Sapa