Why Helen Suzman remains relevant to today's South Africa

By Robert Philpot, May 2, 2014

April 27 1994 should have been a day of quiet satisfaction for Helen Suzman. As South Africans voted in the country’s first multiracial elections, the final nail was hammered into the coffin of the apartheid regime she had spent over four decades fighting.

Instead, the long queues of people waiting to vote infuriated her. As Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins, who spent election day with her, recalled: “Suzman was in a perpetual rage at the queues and official incompetence. ‘Don’t worry, Mrs Suzman,’ people said. ‘We have waited 46 years. We can wait four hours. We are happy.’ She replied: ‘Nonsense. Find me the returning officer’.”

To the last, Suzman was fighting for the right of all South Africans to determine their future. Next week, the country goes to the polls for the fifth time since that momentous election and the first time since the death of Nelson Mandela last December. The queues to vote may not be so long: democracy is, thankfully, less of a novelty. But, as Robin Renwick’s slim but elegant biography of Suzman (published last month) reminds us, the principles that the first lady of South African liberalism doggedly defended, during apartheid’s darkest days, remain as relevant today.

Born to a family which had recently fled Tsarist oppression in Lithuania, Suzman served for 36 years in South Africa’s parliament, for 13 of them, as the sole representative of the Progressive Party, the only party unequivocally opposed to apartheid. An English-speaking Jew in a body dominated by Calvinist Afrikaaners, she was, according to the journalist Stanley Uys, confronted by “some of the most menacing and odious politicians of any parliament ever”. Not that the shouts of “go back to Moscow” or “go back to Israel” which greeted her when she rose to speak, intimidated Suzman. “I don’t know why we equate — and with the examples before us — a white skin with civilisation,” she declared.

In parliament, she found a small chink in the armour of apartheid, exploiting what she called “the last forum for free speech in the country”, not simply to oppose the whole wretched apparatus, but also to act as a “small, fierce if somewhat inadequate watchdog for civil rights”. Berated by one minister for “nagging on about the rule of law”, she asked over 200 questions each year and demanded to visit political prisoners.
Her liberalism was not “a tactical stance” but a principle to be defended against any potential foe. Hers were beliefs shaped not simply by the lessons of postcolonial Africa, but by the Jewish experience.

Outside parliament, Suzman was as hard on the shortcomings of her former friends in the ANC as she had been on her enemies in the National Party. Hearing Mandela praise [Libyan leader] Gaddafi’s respect for human rights, she responded: “How could you be so silly, Nelson?” Mandela could, of course, take criticism. His successor, Thabo Mbeki, was both more sensitive and provided more targets. She spoke out against his neglect of South Africa’s Aids crisis and appeasement of Robert Mugabe, as well as the ANC’s careless disregard for the rights of its parliamentary opponents and attempts to pack the civil service with its supporters.
Even with its flaws South African democracy today is incomparable with the regime it replaced.

But Suzman would brook no excuses for those flaws. She would not, unlike President Zuma, have “respected” Uganda’s recent anti-gay laws. She would have led opposition to the government’s effort to introduce more restrictive press laws, and vigorously probed the policeshooting to death of 34 miners in Marikana in 2012. And she would have questioned why the South African Broadcasting Corporation this month attempted to ban campaign advertisements by the opposition Democratic Alliance.
Helen Suzman would have seen all of this as evidence not that South African democracy has failed, but as justification for what she called her “politically incorrect adherence to liberalism” — the belief that democracy may be the prerequisite for the protection of human rights, but it is an insufficient guarantor of them.

Robert Philpot is editor of Progress magazine

Last updated: 4:45pm, May 2 2014