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In memoriam: Helen Suzman

3 January 2009
For nearly 15 years, from 1961 to 1974, Helen Suzman was a lone voice in parliament for freedom, democracy, justice and human rights. And the tributes on her death show how much even those who disagreed with her politically appreciated her stand.
clipped from www.thetimes.co.za
Tributes have poured in for anti-apartheid icon Helen Suzman, who died at the age of 91 on Thursday.
President Kgalema Motlanthe said Suzman earned her place in South Africa’s political history through her persistent and courageous opposition to the inhumane system of apartheid.
He said South Africans of all persuasions should honour Helen Suzman and show appreciation of her contribution to the building of a democratic society.
The Pan African Congress also added its voice to the growing chorus of individuals and groups hailing Helen Suzman.

South Africa has been “robbed” of one its “brightest stars”, Pan African Congress president Letlapa Mphahlele said in a statement.

“She effectively used the parliamentary platform to echo the fears and aspirations of the people,” he said.

He said the PAC was “indebted” to Suzman for her support of the party’s founder, Robert Sobukwe, while he was imprisoned on Robben Island.

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In that period she was not, of course the only person who fought against the apartheid system; in that respect she was one of thousands. But she was unique in that she was the only one in parliament, and thus the only one who could not easily be silenced. She could thus draw attention to human rights abuses that were censored in other ways. The proceedings of parliament were public, and so the press could report on questions she asked, which could often reveal things that the evasive answers she received tried to hide.

She was one of a group of MPs who broke away from the United Party in 1959 to form the Progressive Party. She was the MP for the constiuency where I lived, Houghton, and so when the Progressive Party was first formed, I went to hear her speak at St Luke’s Hall, Orchards, on 11 January 1960. The voting age had just been lowered from 21 to 18, and so I was eligible to vote.

Though I had reservations about some aspects of their policy (a qualified franchise, for one) they did strongly support human rights against the increasing encroachments by the National Party government. So in the general election on 18 October 1961 I not only voted for her, but spent the morning working at the local polling station at the Dirkie Uys Laerskool ferrying voters to the polls.

That afternoon I went to work (I was a bus conductor for the Johannesburg Transport Department), and while waiting for the last bus home after work I was sitting with a group of fellow bus crews in a spare bus listening to the radio reporting the election results. Most of the bus crews were Nat supporters, and when it was announced that Harry Lawrence, one of the Progressives, had lost Sea Point by more than 2000 votes, things were looking fairly bleak. One bus driver was jubilant, “Ek is so bly dat Harry Lawrence die potjie misgeskop het!” he exclaimed (I am so happy that Harry Lawrence missed his kick at the pot). That was an interesting irony. Harry Lawrence had been Minister of Justice in the Smuts government during the Second World War, and many Nat supporters had been detained as potential subversives and saboteurs against the war effort. After the election B.J. Vorster, who had also been interned in WWII, was made Minister of Justice, and passed law after law to increase the power of the central government to detain people without trial. And Helen Suzman, the only Progressive to be re-elected, was the only one in parliament who opposed him and the human rights abuses he enshrined in law. The official “opposition”, the United Party, could only wring their hands and say “the security of the state is paramount”.

And so on her death many of her opponents of those days, those in different political camps, acknowledge her role in standing up for political prisoners and for human rights.

I met her face to face only once, in April 1972, when I went with a friend to inform her about the persecution of Christians in Namibia, and to thank her for raising the question of those detained without trial in Namibia in parliament. She offered us a whisky, and we spent half an hour trying to open the bottle. She was far smaller, and far more human, than I expected. I thought she would be an efficient businesslike woman, but really she was very friendly. She said that the last couple of weeks in parliament had been terrible, with both sides fighting the Boer War all over again.

12 Comments leave one →
  1. 3 January 2009 9:51 am

    The was another side to Helen that is less well-known, that as academic and researcher. In 1945 Helen Suzman was appointed tutor, then lecturer in Economic History at the University of the Witwatersrand, a post she held till 1953 when she become a Member of Parliament. She helped prepare materials for a conference on human rights on behalf of the Institute of Race Relations (IRR) and traveled to London in June 1947. Also she prepared evidence for the IRR for the Fagan Commission, on laws applying to Africans in the urban areas in 1948. The election of Malan’s ultra-nationalists in 1948 meant that the Fagan Commissions’ recommendations were shelved (till the mid-1990) and Grand Apartheid ruled supreme under Verwoerd and his successors.

    But later when Helen almost single-mindedly opposed the implementation of sanctions [called for internationally by the ANC [or the SACP -their ideological Masters] and the Mandarins of the Anti-Apartheid Movement] on the following grounds: these acts would not lead to the instantaneous capitulation of the South African Nationalist (Boer) government, but would lead to the development of a siege mentality and black unemployment, falling real wages and living standards.

    For this, she was vilified by many opponents of apartheid in exile as a ‘sell-out’. The external National Liberation Movement [guess who?] certainly did not appreciate her stand on sanctions then! She did, however, argued forcefully in my opinion, that black trade union action and black consumer boycotts would be more effective, especially in an expanding economy (absorbing more black workers) – not in a shrinking market in an autarkic, isolated market for black manpower, induced by sanctions or dis-investment. Maybe she was correct, in hindsight! She had the intellectual courage to challenge the ‘accepted viewpoint’ and defend it! Unlike the grovelers and bootslicks in power today who after 15 years of being in power have overseen the fall in living standards and black workers’ real wages, introduced a BEE code (‘black elite enrichment’) in contracting and sub-contracting and the rise of a new elite of Black Oligarchs and billionaires on the JSE, ‘been responsible for the ‘blackouts’ and fuel crisis, etc. But now they celebrate Helen as an ‘honest broker’ and intellectual giant. Maybe. But their own crimes and disasterous economic course of privatization and self-enrichment is never touched on. Double-standards? Welcome to reality! .Have a good 2009 folks!

  2. 8 January 2009 2:14 am

    Dr Gool,

    I agree that Suzman was courageous within her own principles (even if I don’t agree with all of them – e.g. her “strategy” of arguing for a qualified franchise).

    However I should point out that at the time Suzman initially opposed sanctions she was not challenging the “accepted viewpoint”. People like Desmond Tutu who went around making the case for sanctions and international isolation took the more difficult route.

  3. Gus Gosling permalink
    8 January 2009 1:04 pm

    BBM,

    I think you misinterpret Dr Gool’s comment. The ‘accepted viewpoint’ that he refers to was, I think, that of the Anti-Apartheid Movement, not of the governing classes — in South Africa and elsewhere. Since Helen Suzman was certainly morally in sympathy with the AAM movement, taking a strong stand against sanctions placed her at odds with her natural allies and friends.

    That took courage, particularly in light of the acrimony surrounding the issue. Even in academic circles (where you might expect at least some nominal courtesy — ha!) the debate was unfriendly. By the late 70s — a period of calm for the issue compared to what followed in the 80s — the academic debate was often furious and bitter, and sometimes degenerated to name-calling. If you have access to the journal African Affairs a small sampling of the nastiness of the time can be found in

    Legassick and Innes, Capital Restructuring and Apartheid: A Critique of Constructive Engagement, African Affairs, 76 pp. 437-482.

    an attack on Merle Lipton, who then replied (quite angrily) in

    Lipton, The Debate about South Africa: Neo-Marxists and Neo-Liberals, African Affairs, 78 (310) pp. 57-80.

    So, while there was debate on the issue it was often very one-sided, and, from the perspective of the NLMs and other opponents of apartheid, Suzman was on the wrong side of the debate. Opposing the views of your enemies is natural; opposing the views of your friends is much harder and riskier. Dr Gool has it right: Suzman displayed real intellectual courage in taking the stand she did (even if that stand was flawed).

  4. 8 January 2009 7:51 pm

    Hi Gus,

    I agree that there was a strong debate between the “left” and “liberals” about this issue. Helen Suzman may have been courageous in a number of areas, but she was hardly courageous to oppose sanctions and boycotts against South Africa.

    (i) At the time she adopted the position there was not a strong movement calling for international isolation against South Africa.
    (ii) She was elected by and represented the white population of Houghton, Johannesburg. Her decision did not put her in conflict with her constituency.

    You can say she was “courageous” to continue to argue against sanctions and boycotts of apartheid South Africa (through the heady 1980s and right until the end) but I would have to ask, “Compared to what?”. Compared to the Frank Chicane’s and Desmond Tutu’s? Compared to the people who were jailed and beaten? Compared to the people whose clothing was poisoned? Not as far as I am concerned (and you can quote as many academic journal criticisms of her as you like!).

    And the bottom line (despite Dr Gool’s extraordinarily tenuous link to the situation of BEE in South Africa today) is that this was an argument which history has shown her to be on the “losing” side of the argument. We all now know that it was pressure from South Africa’s international backers who forced the hand of the De Klerks to accede to change.

    I would like to think kindly that her (and Slabbert/Borraine/et al’s) decision to oppose sanctions was simply a strategic decision forced on them by the fact that they chose to oppose apartheid within the system, within the apartheid parliamentary framework. To not oppose sanctions would have been political suicide for them. They did what they had to (but it was certainly not courageous).

  5. Gus Gosling permalink
    9 January 2009 10:44 am

    Dear Meanie,

    You’ve thrown in a few facts, and quite a bit of opinion. Let’s deal with both.

    Point (1): No, you’re wrong. There was already a strong international movement agitating for the imposition of sanctions by the 70s, and it had already scored some minor victories (For instance: a mandatory arms embargo came into effect in ’77, replacing the voluntary embargo in place since ’63). Suzman’s opposition to sanctions, from those early days, goes some way to proving that her opposition to sanctions was principled, not opportunistic.

    Point (2): True, but you’ve managed to (purposely?) misconstrue my argument. So let me repeat it: In opposing sanctions Suzman set herself up in opposition to her natural friends and allies, both inside and outside of South Africa , and placed herself, uncomfortably, nominally, in the same camp as her enemies. I say ‘nominally’ since her argument against sanctions was nuanced; that was ignored by her critics then, and continues to this day.

    Frank Chicane? Who he? Or maybe you mean Frank Chikane?

    I certainly never compared Suzman to Tutu or Chikane, you did. A standard straw-man fallacy, but let’s ignore that. Chikane and Tutu of course displayed real courage (not least physical courage — Chikane nearly died at the hands of a state poisoner) in their activities, but their position on sanctions, amongst anti-apartheid activists, was the orthodox one. It was Suzman who took the contrary, heterodox, position.

    I enjoyed your comment on not particularly caring about any facts I could cite. You know the Pieter-Dirk Uys joke (playing PW): “My mind is made up. Don’t confuse me with facts!”

    But, let me try anyway. You seem very confident that Suzman was on the losing end of the argument — that sanctions were the critical, crucial ingredient in getting De Klerk and henchpersons to the negotiating table. Not true. In the entire sanctions campaign there was exactly one huge victory: the banking sanctions of 1985. That certainly exercised the minds of the then South African government, and made it more amenable to reason. Sanctions worked then? Well, no. Chase Manhattan and chums weren’t particularly moved by the arguments of the AAM , rather they were concerned about reducing their exposure to a very risky market and were determined to either get out of that market, or make that market less risky (by encouraging reform). Beware of Bankers who belatedly discover their public-duty gland.

    The end of the Cold War almost surely played a far greater role in bringing both parties to the negotiating table than did sanctions. The end of Soviet backing for the ANC/SACP made it a far more reasonable negotiating partner, while the USA, no longer fearful of the rooigevaar in Africa, was more inclined to strong arm the apartheid regime. Though, it should be added, the extent to which the Americans were manipulated by the South African government, even at the height of the Cold War, was probably minimal:

    Jeffrey Herbst, Analyzing Apartheid: How accurate were US intelligence estimates of South Africa, 1948–1994? African Affairs (2003) 102 pp 81–107.

    Sorry, can’t help myself: I cite therefore I am.

    At best then, your argument is much weaker than you suppose. Certainly not decisive.

    Finally, your sniffy remark on Suzman, van Zyl Slabbert and Borraine only opposing sanctions for the voter appeal: In the case of Suzman her majority, in later years, was so large she could have gavotted with Leonid Brezhnev while singing the Internationale, and still won her seat. van Zyl Slabbert and Boraine of course both abandoned parliament as irrelevant in ’86 — an indication of their reverence for the opinion of white South Africa.

  6. 9 January 2009 11:40 am

    I’m not sure about the question of sanctions, and whether Helen Suzman was right or wrong to oppose them is something I’m not sure about. When I think of Madeleine Albright’s attitude to sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s (the death of half a million Iraqi children was “worth it” to maintain US sovereignty in the Middle East), I think more kindly of Helen Suzman’s attitude.

    What disturbs me more is the distortion of history. Peter Sullivan, in an editorial obituary that was otherwise very good, says that she stood for all South Africans having a vote while she was a lone member of parliament. That wasn’t true. The Progessive Party stood for a qualified franchise. It was quite open about its policy of replacing race discrimination with class discrimination, and giving votes to the rich and educated. That might have been “liberal” in the 19th century, where one could talk of “the old Cape Liberals”, but it certainly wasn’t liberal in the 20th century, and the Progressive Party, and its successors, the PRP and PFP were not liberal, but the liberal wing of the conservatives — centre-right as opposed to right right, like the Conservative Party.

    That does not detract in any way from Helen Suzman’s stand for human rights, especially on such issues like detention without trial, the rule of law etc. It just shows that people could be anti-apartheid without being pro- all the same things.

  7. Gus Gosling permalink
    9 January 2009 12:12 pm

    Steve,

    What was your position on sanctions in the 80s? I was only a quite small kid at the time, so have no real recollection on how people inside South Africa felt on the issue.

  8. 10 January 2009 7:14 am

    Gus,

    I was undecided about the value of sanctions in the 1980s, and at most other times too. I listened to the arguments pro and con, and could not make up my mind.

    Even the arms embargo, I wasn’t sure about. In 1983-84 we lived at Lyttelton, which was probably the prime collateral damage target in the country. Just to the north was the biggest arms factory in the southern hemisphere. To the south was a top secret military research establishment, while to the east and west were military aerodromes – Waterkloof and Zwartkop respectively. So there was a good chance that anything that missed its intended target swould hit us, or, perhaps as Hamas is said to do, the Nat government was using the civilian suburb of Lyttelton as a human shield.

    Armscor is still there, and it is a direct result of the arms embargo, and it makes South Africa the top arms manufacturer in the sub-continent, if not the whole continent.

    When I was a student at Durham University in the UK, however, I, and other South Africans there, strongly opposed the university rugby team playing against one from the University of the Orange Free State (UOVS), the Shimlas. The Tories who favoured the tour said we were introducing politics into sport, but we countered that UOVS was a champion of sporting apartheid, and was one of the ideological powerhouses of apartheid, and so anyone who didn’t like politics in sport should oppose the match, since UOVS was a prime example of introducing politics into sport. The match was cancelled.

    On the other hand, if anyone had proposed a boycott of a speech by Helen Suzman, I would have objected, on the grounds that it was blaming the victim. Boycott the Nats, certainly, but not a member of the opposition, even if you disagree with some of their policies.

    So I suppose I could say I believed in selective sanctions.

  9. 10 January 2009 1:20 pm

    Hi Gus,

    I have no problem with “facts” (although as Steve points out elsewhere, these can be selective). My point was in fact that “courage” in “taking a stand” in an academic journal is quite a different thing to “courage” in other areas. I suppose though that this is relative. Academics tend to take themselves more seriously than other people do😉.

    Thanks for correcting my spelling. It is not a strong point, and it is not helped by the fact that I touch-type and my fingers follow certain patterns sometimes independently of the word that I am thinking of.

    I find your argument interesting, but we will have to agree to disagree. Steve’s point about unintended consequences is also interesting. Of course (viz “Black Swan” theory) we only see the unintended consequences of the actions we have taken. It is more difficult to imagine the unintended consequences of the actions we didn’t take. (If that statement is very Rumsfeldian in the “known knowns/unknown knows/unknown unknows” kind of way then I apologise!)

    ~bbm

  10. Gus Gosling permalink
    10 January 2009 3:19 pm

    Dear BBM,

    I apologise for my grumpy tone. I think the unpleasantness Helen Suzman experienced went far beyond spiteful comments in academic journals — for a stalwart opponent of apartheid to be abused as a ‘sellout’ and ‘apartheid stooge’ on American campuses was hurtful, and a gross injustice. Still, as you point out, in a society rife with injustice it was still small beer.

    As for spelling. Ahem. To my enormous embarrassment after making my snotty comment on your spelling I went on to misspell Boraine’s name. Glass Houses. Stones.

    Steve’s point on one unintended consequence of the arms embargo is important, and goes beyond the creation of Armscor. At least some of the corruption associated with the arms deal has its origins in the sanctions-busting era: by the 1990s South Africans were already inured to the practices of shady operators who, for a price, would supply even South Africa. What followed post-1994 was only an elaboration on previous corruption.

    Rumsfeld? Who he? (May he regain the obscurity he so richly deserves)

  11. Dr Selim Y Gool permalink
    12 January 2009 2:08 pm

    On the Sanctions/Boycott Debate – History and Contextualization and a persoanal note. Firtsly, what is relevant to an understandiing of the Great Sanctions Debate is the following: during the 1950s South Africa experienced exceptionally high growth rates , over 5% GDP per annum and in the 1960 even more (5-10%). This means that Direct Foreign Investments (DFI) were pouring into the country at an incrasing rate and the South African government could borrow on the international credit markets and run a deficit on current account on the basis of its creditwothiness. For many liberal writers and analysts, and later the radical political economists, was this was part of an international trend: changes in the post-war division of labour whereby developing countries’ DFI were no longer located in platations and mining in the developing/underdeveloped world but in manufacturing/fincance and services, and political changes with the rise of Pax Americana and the demise of the British Empire and the anti-colonial revolution that gave rise to new Nationalist governments and Movements. The South African National Liberation Movement was then conceived as a multi-class allaince based more specifically on the Populist Politics that emerged in the Comintern (3rd Communist International) after 1936 and the Anti-Apatheid Movement internationally became the “most successfull” Popular Front movement ever (well, we can discuss this later, eh?). Now in the early 1970s, Jonathan Steele of the London “The Guardian”, Ruth First (ANC /SACP) and Christobel Gurnley publish as book called “The South Connection” which highlighted the role of multinational investmensts (manily British and American) in South Africa, using the logic of capital seeking “high rates of profit and using low wages” and other discriminatory legistlation to suppress workers’ aspirations (unions, workplace organisation and better facilities). Highlighting the horrific conditions in the new industrial zones created by these DFIs this was an international phenomenon (Brazil, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan etc). But then came the 1973 Durban strikes and the new industrial unions sprang up, organizing unions into militant industral workplace-based organisations (“One Union, One Industrry”, “One Industry, One Union”) then linked to FOSATU. Then came the Soweto Uprising and increased international pressure to utilize the boycott and sanctions TACTIC to put pressure on the South African goverbnment. It was found that it was easier to break sporting, cultural and diplomatic links than specifically ‘economic’ ones – hence the interventions of Lipton, Legassick/Hemson, Suzman, Tutu et alia. I was a student, later researcher in Sweden at the time, but also active in the Anti-Apartheid solidarity movements and a member of the ANC Youth & Students. The dilemma was that even the Swedish government gave a specific dispensation to its firms that operated in S.A. (under the Social-Democratic government of Olof Palme) – SKF (global ballbearings monopoly) serviced the SADF for instance! And so the dabate was not one of an academic nature only but had consequences that were analysed thoroughly – a veritable intellectual cottage-industry arose in fact! There ‘for’ and ‘against’ positions delineated, but the bottom line was economic prof-making (“rates of profit”) vesrus job and income creation in the new industries created by DFI. I had to politically support the ‘Sancions Campaign’ as part of the AAM’s international pressure BUT also saw that it was the black workers’ struggle in indepedent unions that would raise the living standards and make them ‘class conscious’ of their role in the broader anti-apartheid struggle. Hence my support initially for the ‘economic rationale’ in the Suzman argument againt the ‘Mandarins’ of the AAM/ANC – many of whom are in government and overseeing the FALL in the living standards and real wages of many black workers under the neoliberalist GEAR! That was my humble intension friends.

  12. 12 January 2009 3:00 pm

    “On the Sanctions/Boycott and Di-vestment Campaign-Debate – History and Contextualization and a personal note. Firtsly, what is relevant to an understandiing of the Great Sanctions Debate is the following: during the 1950s South Africa experienced exceptionally high growth rates , over 5% GDP per annum and in the 1960 even more (5-10%). This means that Direct Foreign Investments (DFI) were pouring into the country at an incrasing rate and the South African government could borrow on the international credit markets and run a deficit on current account on the basis of its creditwothiness. For many liberal writers and analysts, and later the radical political economists, was this was part of an international trend: changes in the post-war division of labour whereby developing countries’ DFI were no longer located in platations and mining in the developing/underdeveloped world but in manufacturing/fincance and services, and political changes with the rise of Pax Americana and the demise of the British Empire and the anti-colonial revolution that gave rise to new Nationalist governments and Movements. The South African National Liberation Movement was then conceived as a multi-class allaince based more specifically on the Populist Politics that emerged in the Comintern (3rd Communist International) after 1936 and the Anti-Apatheid Movement internationally became the “most successfull” Popular Front movement ever (well, we can discuss this later, eh?). Now in the early 1970s, Jonathan Steele of the London “The Guardian”, Ruth First (ANC /SACP) and Christobel Gurnley publish as book called “The South Connection” (Penguin 1973) which highlighted the role of multinational investmensts (manily British and American) in South Africa, using the logic of capital seeking “high rates of profit and using low wages” and other discriminatory legistlation to suppress workers’ aspirations (unions, workplace organisation and better facilities). Highlighting the horrific conditions in the new industrial zones created by these DFIs this was an international phenomenon (Brazil, Indonesia, Singapore, Taiwan etc). But then came the 1973 Durban strikes and the new industrial unions sprang up, organizing unions into militant industral workplace-based organisations (“One Union, One Industrry”, “One Industry, One Union”) then linked to FOSATU. Then came the Soweto Uprising and increased international pressure to utilize the boycott and sanctions TACTIC to put pressure on the South African goverbnment. It was found that it was easier to break sporting, cultural and diplomatic links than specifically ‘economic’ ones – hence the interventions of Lipton, Legassick/Hemson, Suzman, Tutu et alia. I was a student, later researcher in Sweden at the time, but also active in the Anti-Apartheid solidarity movements and a member of the ANC Youth & Students. The dilemma was that even the Swedish government gave a specific dispensation to its firms that operated in S.A. (under the Social-Democratic government of Olof Palme) – SKF (global ballbearings monopoly) serviced the SADF for instance! And so the dabate was not one of an academic nature only but had consequences that were analysed thoroughly – a veritable intellectual cottage-industry arose in fact! There ‘for’ and ‘against’ positions delineated, but the bottom line was economic prof-making (“rates of profit”) vesrus job and income creation in the new industries created by DFI. I had to politically support the ‘Sancions Campaign’ as part of the AAM’s international pressure BUT also saw that it was the black workers’ struggle in indepedent unions that would raise the living standards and make them ‘class conscious’ of their role in the broader anti-apartheid struggle. Hence my support initially for the ‘economic rationale’ in the Suzman argument againt the ‘Mandarins’ of the AAM/ANC – many of whom are in government and overseeing the FALL in the living standards and real wages of many black workers under the neoliberalist GEAR! That was my humble intension friends.”

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