In memoriam: Helen Suzman
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.