/ 3 May 2013

Helen Suzman: Bright star in a dark chamber

Helen Suzman and Winnie Mandela in Orlando West
Helen Suzman and Winnie Mandela in Orlando West

It is not for me to comment on the recent spat between the Democratic Alliance and the ANC about the use of the ­photograph of Nelson Mandela and Helen Suzman in DA campaign materials. But, as the director of the foundation that bears her name, I wish to respond to recent statements by the ANC's parliamentary spokesperson, Moloto Mothapo ("Suzman was against apartheid, but she was not for liberation", April 26).

Mothapo seeks to undermine the important role Suzman played in the struggle against apartheid. I cannot correct all his inaccuracies, half-truths and misrepresentations, but I must respond to the claim that Suzman's participation in Parliament "legitimise[d] 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.

Mothapo's words are in sharp contrast to the previous acknowledgment by the ANC, after her death on January 1 2009, that it "remembers and respects the contribution of Suzman towards the demise of apartheid". Mothapo seeks to dismiss this by putting it down to an ubuntu that teaches us not to talk ill of the departed. That does not explain the acknowledgments of Suzman's role made by eminent leaders of the anti-apartheid struggle while she was still alive.

"Forever remember you are a bright star in a dark chamber," wrote Albert Luthuli to Suzman in 1963, adding that "posterity will hold you in high esteem". Ruth First wrote a year later: "I admire tremendously your sledgehammer attack on [the 90-day detention law] and so many other vital issues." In 1965, Veronica Sobukwe, the wife of Robert Sobukwe, described Suzman as a person "whose integrity is unimpeachable … an untiring champion of liberty for all men, irrespective of race, colour or creed".

In 1986, Winnie Madikizela-Mandela inscribed a manuscript to her "dearest friend Helen" and predicted that "one day, the nation will honour your tremendous work – your fight for our human rights. You've always truly been one of us". When Suzman retired from Parliament in 1989, Mandela himself wrote from Victor Verster Prison: "[Y]ou acquitted yourself beyond words."  

Commitment to justice
Mandela saw her as one "who has contributed impressively to the victory of the democratic forces of our country" (1995) and paid tribute to her "courage, integrity and principled commitment to justice" (2002).

In Parliament Suzman opposed apartheid unequivocally. For 13 years she was the only MP to do so. She took on every apartheid Bill and subjected it to penetrating criticism. She took on the scores of National Party MPs and bullying ministers, time after time, in speech after speech.

Mothapo speaks nonsense when he implies that she supported Bills that "limited the rights of black South Africans". She consistently opposed racial discrimination of any kind. She opposed the Tricameral Parliament in 1983 because it disenfranchised 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 educational or property qualifications: it was never one qualified by race.

From 1978, the party supported an unqualified, 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 liberal constitutional democracy today.

Suzman used her Parliamentary position to highlight the injustices and violence of apartheid and to assist its many victims.

Desired objective
Anthony Sampson's biography notes Mandela's deep appreciation of her help in improving conditions on Robben Island. She visited the banned and the banished, fought for countless political prisoners. For all this, she was vilified in Parliament and out. Her phone was tapped, her letters opened, she received abusive phone calls and death threats.

Suzman disagreed with the ANC about violence and sanctions. Like many other eminent liberals, she believed that economic development and peaceful mass action would be the best way to end apartheid. Whether they were right or wrong is for historians to debate. But these were differences about tactics, not the desired objective.

Whatever Joe Slovo said of her in 1983, surely by the early 1990s, they shared the same objective: the creation of a non-racial democracy with basic freedoms and the rule of law. In 1989 Mandela wrote to Suzman making this very point: "[T]­he 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."

In a letter upon her 90th birthday, Mandela wrote to Suzman that her "role in the struggle against apartheid and in the building of democracy was an extraordinary one … one that should never be forgotten".  

So Suzman should be remembered and celebrated by everyone in our democracy, including Mr Mothapo.

Francis Antonie is the director of the Helen Suzman Foundation. This is an edited version of a text that can be read in full at www.hsf.org.za