100 years on, the values and fighting spirit of Helen Suzman are still alive
Today 100 years ago, anti-apartheid activist, human-rights activist, former Member of Parliament (MP) and founding member of the Progressive Party, Helen Suzman was born. The Democratic Alliance (DA), today celebrates her life, honours her legacy, and remembers her immense contribution to a free, democratic South Africa. She devoted her life to the fight against apartheid.
Helen Suzman used her position in Parliament to relentlessly chip away at the edifice of apartheid South Africa with a tenacity borne of a deep concern for the lives of others and a hatred of oppression. Her doggedness earned her global respect. She embodied the liberal democratic values that now form the foundation of our constitutional democracy, and she embodied the fighting spirit that has hitherto, and still, inspires the Democratic Alliance.
She served as the lone voice against apartheid in Parliament between 1961 and 1974 – six years of which as the only woman in Parliament. As an English speaking female in an Afrikaans male dominated Parliament, she was often subjected to intimidation, sexism and anti-semitism. Yet she was indefatigable, fighting the National Party and embarrassing and exposing the apartheid government. She was indeed a “bright star in a dark chamber”.
The National Party showed disdain for any opposition voice, and undermined opposition parties whenever they could. However, Helen was always up for the fight. She used every opportunity to stand for what was right, and to bring international attention to the South African cause.
This was epitomised in a moment in Parliament where Suzman was accused of asking tough questions the government claimed were embarrassing to the country. Suzman famously responded by saying “it’s not my questions that embarrass South Africa, it is your answers”.
In her time in Parliament, she opposed every plank of Apartheid’s legislative underpinning, as well as its philosophical underpinning of racial nationalism. She stood for liberal constitutionalism long before it was fashionable to do so, knowing that the philosophy of racial nationalism and reductionism could not be sustained in the long term.
Today, Helen Suzman’s values still course through the veins of the DA. As she said, we “hate bullies, and stand for simple justice, equal opportunity and human rights”, and this basic ethos still guides our party today, as does her commitment to a society where race and the circumstances of one’s birth to does not define their life chances.
The struggle against apartheid had many heroes, all of whom rightly deserve commemoration and remembrance. All of their contributions helped in one way or another to the ending of apartheid and the dawn of democracy in 1994. Helen Suzman is one such a hero, and we honour her today.
Helen Suzman was fortunate enough to live to see the advent of democracy in 1994, but she also saw the beginnings of the ANC’s perversion of the Constitution and abuse of power. Until her passing in January 2009, just months before the beginning of the Zuma presidency, she was still a regular contributor to the public debate: always raising the alarm about the divisive racial politics of the ANC, and the capture of the state through cadre deployment for private and political ends. She was clear that 1994 was both the end of one struggle, and the beginning of another.
Helen Suzman laid the foundations for a truly united, prosperous and non racial South Africa for all who live in it. The DA will continue to build on her legacy, until simple justice, equal opportunity and human rights are afforded to all.
Statement issued by Mmusi Maimane, Leader of the Democratic Alliance, 7 November 2017