Lessons from the life of Helen Suzman

Michael Cardo says the late PFP MP always looked to the principle of the matter

As the Progressive Party’s only MP between 1961 and 1974, Helen Suzman did more than anyone to oppose the legislative juggernaut of apartheid. She brought its horrors to international attention.

Suzman would have turned 100 today, November 7th. Yet in a country obsessed with paying homage to its heroes and marking anniversaries, her centenary seems to be passing by largely unnoticed.

Much has been said and written in 2017 about Suzman’s co-centenarian, former ANC President Oliver Tambo. In contrast, the public commemoration of Suzman has been muted. That is because the ruling party’s nationalist narrative of history has triumphed. In fact, it has prevailed to such an extent that even the ANC’s political rivals feebly echo it, or mimic it, or try to lay claim to it for contemporary profit. This has inevitably led to the marginalisation of historical figures from outside the Congress tradition.

Suzman was a great South African. She was a liberal. The party she represented in Parliament was a progenitor of the Democratic Alliance. Her legacy deserves to be honoured and celebrated. For not only did she play a monumental role in opposing and exposing apartheid, her 36-year long parliamentary career also offers valuable lessons to observers of the current political scene.

Suzman demonstrated great clarity of purpose. She pursued an alternative vision to apartheid – of non-racial constitutional democracy – and over four decades she did not veer off course.

Suzman never pandered to racial nationalism, or equivocated on policy, or obfuscated over contentious issues. She was decisive.

She knew where she stood and what she stood for: simple justice, equal opportunity and human rights. As she often said: “If you don't know what to do, go and look for the principle”. And she combined resoluteness and staying power (what Frederik van Zyl Slabbert, after his premature departure from Parliament in 1986, called her “built-in survival kit”) with razor-sharp humour.

Suzman’s witticisms are legion and legendary. Arthur Barlow, the expelled United Party (UP) MP whom she regarded as “an evil old liar”, would often interrupt Suzman’s speeches with the anti-Semitic heckle: “It’s the lady from Lithuania”. She got her own back one day when Barlow made a speech complaining about the high murder rate in his constituency. If Barlow ever dared show his face to his constituents, Suzman told the House, the murder rate would go up by one.

Suzman needed to arm herself with a sense of humour, because the environment in which she operated was a deeply hostile one: to women, to Jews, and above all to anyone who attacked the edifice of white supremacy.

In the ‘60s and early-‘70s, as a torrent of repressive legislation came before Parliament, she was the sole but powerful voice of dissent.

She fought for the abolition of pass laws and influx control. She campaigned tirelessly against forced removals. She shone a light on police torture in prisons. She battled against detention without trial. In 1964, when Suzman introduced a Private Member’s Bill to repeal all enactments that allowed such detention, not a single UP MP supported her. 

Suzman used parliamentary mechanisms to unearth information that exposed the cruelty and irrationality of apartheid. In a typical session she would submit over 200 questions. During a memorable exchange, a furious Minister shouted at her: “You put these questions just to embarrass South Africa overseas”. She responded acerbically: “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa; it is your answers”.

Her speeches in the House attracted international attention and put pressure on the government to reform.

Yet it was in the 1950s that Suzman’s political instincts were forged.

Elected to Parliament for the first time in 1953 on the UP’s ticket, she found a party at sea – rudderless and adrift. The UP had made so many compromises on “native policy” over the previous decade that it lacked all sense of integrity and conviction.

Jan Smuts had died in 1950 and JGN Strauss was proving an ineffectual successor. He was the kind of political leader, Suzman wrote in her memoirs, who “chose to placate his enemies at the expense of his friends”.

On Strauss’s watch, the UP had supported the Separate Amenities Bill at its second reading (Suzman defied the whip and refused to vote for it) before eventually reversing its position. Strauss opposed Nationalist plans to remove coloured voters from the common roll. But he refused to give a cast-iron assurance that the UP would restore the coloured franchise should the Nats succeed in their plans. And Strauss’s policy platform was a pale imitation of the Nationalists’ own: “white leadership with just recognition of non-European aspirations”, a polysyllabic clunker that convinced or galvanised nobody.

Sir De Villiers Graaff, who replaced Strauss as leader in 1956, was a great disappointment to the liberals in the UP. Suzman would later recall that his favourite piece of advice to the caucus on controversial issues was “‘when in doubt, leave out’”. As historian Alex Mouton notes in his recently published book on leaders of the parliamentary opposition before 1994, Graaff relied on public opinion surveys to determine what voters wanted. He would then appoint a succession of committees to develop policy.

In this way, he foreshadowed the contemporary obsession with focus groups as a guide to policy formulation.

Graaff took a leaf out of Alexandre Ledru-Rollin’s book. He was the nineteenth century French politician who said: “There go the people. We are their leaders and therefore we must follow them”. Indeed, Graaff wrote in his own memoirs that MPs were in large measure “mouthpieces of the people”. Their task was to “render articulate…the views of the ordinary citizen”.

Confronted with the UP’s ambivalence about racist laws, its policy prevarications and lacklustre leadership, Suzman considered not standing again in the 1958 election. But her sense of responsibility ensured that she did. The following year, she and eleven of her likeminded colleagues finally broke with the UP after its congress, where the party reneged on earlier promises to transfer land to blacks. The result was the birth of the Progressive Party on 13 November 1959.

Over the course of her long life, Helen Suzman championed the causes of liberalism, constitutionalism and non-racialism within the context of a market-driven economy. She did so by being clear, consistent and principled – and by refusing, to borrow the words of historian Herman Gilliomee, to “bat on her opponents’ pitch”.

Hers is a legacy of which South Africa, and the DA in particular, can be proud.

Michael Cardo is a DA MP and the party’s spokesman on economic development

This article first appeared in Business Day.