Helen Suzman: Beating Apartheid from Within


Although Helen Suzman is not as well known as Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, or Nelson Mandela, she played a pivotal role in re-fashioning South Africa. During her thirty-six years serving in South Africas Parliament, she was often the sole opposition to anti-apartheid from within the Parliamentary government.

Suzman started her political career under the United Partys umbrella. They were the official opposition to the National Party, who engineered, built, and maintained apartheid from 1948 to 1994. When Suzman voted against the Separate Amenities Bill in 1953, her first year in Parliament, she voted against party line. The United Party had decided to support the bill, which proposed separate and unequal amenities provided for blacks, coloreds (an all-encompassing group of people labeled thus because they were part-black, Indian, Malay, or Chinese), and whites.

She split with the party in 1959 over the Promotion of Bantu Self-Government Bill, which introduced the concept of Bantustans independent black rural homelands. The idea was to create two separate South Africas one for the whites, and one for the blacks.

The Bill, later put into practice, led to gross abuse of Africans ability to live and work where they wanted and failed to take into account the reality of South African society for example, the inter-relatedness of black and white economies and the class of urban Africans who had never lived in the rural areas. Bills such as these led to the governments practice of uprooting thousands of urban-dwelling Africans, loading them into vans, and dumping them in the desert, miles from the city, with tents and without the means to provide water or food for themselves.

Suzman and a few others who split from the United Party started the Progressive Party, which opposed race discrimination and lobbied for a non-racial franchise. Nevertheless, they did propose that the franchise should be qualified on the basis of economic achievement or education, which would have disenfranchised many Africans initially. Although many African and white leaders of the resistance movements in South Africa appreciated all that Suzman had done for them, they did not agree about this qualified franchise. Later in life, Suzman also rejected the idea of a qualified franchise.

For thirteen years, from 1961-1974, Suzman was the only member of the Progressive Party in Parliament. By default, then, she became the voice for millions of South Africans who lacked the vote. For example, she was the one lone vote against South Africas ninety-day detention law. She wanted it to be so clear that she was the only one standing against this law that she requested Parliament to physically divide which meant that she stood alone on one side of the room against a roomful of Nationalist and United M.P.s who voted the bill into effect.

At least seventy people died at the hands of the police under the ninety-day detention law, which encouraged the police to detain individuals without charging them with a crime and without allowing them access to a lawyer. Ruth First, a vocal activist against apartheid, was detained for ninety days and then released. As she prepared to make a phone call to be picked up, the police re-arrested her and detained her again. Helen Suzman intervened on Firsts behalf, at the request of several of Firsts friends who knew she had tried to commit suicide while in prison. First left South Africa on an exit visa, which meant she could never return, and was later killed by a letter bomb, sent by the South African government.

Again and again, Helen Suzman confronted the government with facts that would have convicted it of murder, aggression, terrorism, and injustice had those facts been presented in a court of law. Yet again and again, she was re-elected and allowed to speak out about the horrors that the government perpetuated. Why? Perhaps because everyone knew she was imminently fair, just, and truthful. In 1983, for example, Suzman responded to a letter from Winnie Mandela, claiming that Nelson Mandela had lost his spirits and was going to break. Visiting with Mandela in prison, Suzman learned that Winnies report had been highly exaggerated. Winnie had further claimed that because Mandela had been given shoes too small for his feet, he had had to have a toe removed. Mandela informed Suzman that he had inadvertently ordered the wrong size shoe, and had had to have a toenail removed.

Although Suzman wished to see Mandela released, she felt that exaggerations of his mental condition would only make the case for his release weak. So, just as she braved the anger and spite of National Party leaders day in and day out, she told the truth, even if the anti-apartheid movement grew angry with her.

Many of those who fought against apartheid were far more radical than Helen Suzman in their politics. In South Africa, the communist party was a viable, living organism, an integral part of the anti-apartheid movement and armed resistance. Though the ANC was not a communist organization itself, it associated very closely with communist leaders like Joe Slovo (who had been one of Suzmans economic students before she went into politics), Ruth First, and Bram Fischer, who all relied on Suzmans position at one time or another for help from within the system. Because of this, and because they knew they could trust Helen Suzman to be just and fair, she was revered by many.

Mandela tells the story of standing in a hallway with Bram Fischer, his defense lawyer, during the Rivonia Trial (which placed Mandela behind bars for over twenty years.) Mandela describes the scene: Bram got up and whispered almost in reverence as a woman passed in the corridor, Helen Suzman significant coming from a man whose political views would not normally lead him to respect a liberal (see Mandelas introduction to Helen Suzmans autobiography, In No Uncertain Terms). In later years, Suzman convinced the prime minister not to let Bram Fischer die in prison and the government allowed him to die at home.

Breyten Breytenbach, a South African writer and poet, claimed that prisoners considered Suzman to be Our Lady of the Prisoners and went on to describe her as a living myth who could do anything and whose name, brandished as a weapon, could convince an unjust warder to change his/her course of action (see The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, Part 2: A Memory of Sky, written by Breyten Breytenbach.)

Mamphela Ramphele, a woman doctor, a leader in the Black Consciousness movement that swept South Africa in the 1970s, and the mother of Steven Bikos child, describes Suzman: Helen Suzman remained a tower of strength for me through all the years.. I would phone Helen frantically a week or two before departure on an overseas trip after having waited in vain for an answer to my application. A phone call from Helen to the Ministers office never failed to secure an assurance that my passport was waiting for collection at the local office of the Ministry.She will certainly go down in history as someone who did not shy away form helping ordinary South Africans in times of great need (see p. 146, Across Boundaries: The Journey of a South African Woman Leader, a memoir by Mamphela Ramphele.)

Helen Suzman retired from politics in 1989, a few short months before F.W. de Klerk released Nelson Mandela from prison and announced the creation of a new South Africa. She was almost seventy-two years old.