a salute to suzman for a life well lived

Jack Bloom

Jack Bloom

Unlike many lonely warriors for justice, the late Helen Suzman received vindication and much praise while she was still alive.

The acclamations following her death, however, reveal a far greater appreciation from across the political spectrum.

According to PAC president Letlapa Mphalele, South Africa has been robbed of one of its "brightest stars".

He said the PAC was indebted to Suzman for her support of Robert Sobukwe when he was imprisoned on Robben Island, and that "she effectively used the parliamentary platform to echo the fears and aspirations of the people".

Former president Thabo Mbeki said that all people of conscience could not forget how, though a lone voice in the apartheid parliament for many years, Suzman refused to be intimidated and that "even as we mourn her death, we celebrate an eminent South African patriot who dedicated so many of her years to the struggle to end the apartheid system and secure freedom for all South Africans".

President Kgalema Motlanthe has called on South Africans of all persuasions to honour her and show appreciation for her contribution to the building of a democratic society.

Archbishop Desmond Tutu said: "We owe her an immense debt . she was a true heroine who contributed to our country's peaceful transition when many predicted a racial bloodbath."

Suzman could have lived the comfortable life of a white South African under apartheid but chose a different route when she was elected MP for the Houghton constituency from 1953 until 1989.

During that time she was one of the world's finest parliamentarians, using her wit, knowledge and debating skills to fight for equal justice for all.

For 13 years, from 1961 to 1974, she was the sole representative of the Progressive Party and the only parliamentarian to oppose the apartheid laws.

For six years she was the only woman among 165 MPs.

In her autobiography she writes: "I took advantage of my status as MP to gain access to many places out of bounds to the public, such as prisons, townships and 'resettlement areas' I put into practice my conviction that, to speak with authority, one must see for oneself."

She visited Winnie Madikizela-Mandela when she was exiled in Brandfort and attended many funerals of unrest victims.

All this earned her a torrent of abuse, much of it personal and anti-Semitic, such as "Go back to Israel" and "We don't like your screeching Jewish voice".

When prime minister Hendrik Verwoerd was assassinated in parliament in 1966, then defence minister PW Botha yelled at her: "It's you liberals. You incite people. Now we will get you."

Suzman received both praise and criticism from black people. Former Sowetan editor Joe Latakgomo wrote in 1990 that "to some, she is the fighter for justice, for democracy, and for the rule of law. To others, she is a white liberal who could never understand the sensitivities of blacks, and, in any event, was not mandated by blacks to speak for them."

Latakgomo's assessment was that many blacks privately had great admiration for her, as expressed by Nelson Mandela, who wrote to her in 1989 from Pollsmoor Prison that "your commitment to a nonracial democracy in a united South Africa has won you many friends in the extra-parliamentary movement."

There are many, many stories of how she took up individual cases of injustice far beyond the boundaries of her parliamentary constituency.

After retirement she was still feisty and outspoken, taking up, for instance, the case of people's poet Mzwakhe Mbuli who she believed was wrongly convicted for armed robbery.

She contributed to debate in the Democratic Alliance, supported the DA in elections and was particularly critical of the government's stance on HIV-Aids and Zimbabwe.

The lessons from her career are many, including the importance of steadfastness to principle, however unpopular.

She was devoted to her constituents, holding regular report-back meetings.

Her telephone number was publicly listed for anyone to phone her directly.

How many of today's parliamentarians do as she did, indefatigably taking up complaints and doing their research thoroughly?

Suzman was dismayed at the decline of accountability in today's parliament, which she compared to the old parliament where even an ultra-conservative Nat speaker upheld her right to be heard, and her questions to be answered, however this might embarrass the ruling party.

She was refreshingly humble and down to earth, recently declining a proposal to rename a Johannesburg street after her.

The attendance of so many diverse and illustrious dignitaries at her funeral should finally bury the pernicious myth that white liberals did not assist in the ending of apartheid.

She maintained that she did what she could, from where she was, with what she had.

It would greatly assist our nation building if the ANC recognised more generally this contribution of others rather than monopolising all credit.

Further political maturity would accept that opposition politics is not treason, but necessary and legitimate in a democratic order.

We need to build on the sentiment of Mbeki's former spokesman, Mukoni Ratshitanga, that "we need more Helen Suzmans".

l The writer is an MPL, DA leader in the Gauteng provincial legislature.