Helen Suzman and apartheid

Moloto Mothapo says the ANC in exile was right to say hers was not the cause the oppressed masses shared


The DA last week launched its ‘Know Your DA' campaign which, according to its leader Helen Zille, is aimed at educating people about the party and the role it played in the anti-apartheid struggle. As the face of this campaign to claim its stake in the struggle for liberation, the party chose Helen Suzman - a former Progressive Party (DA's predecessor) MP who used her tenure in parliament to speak out against apartheid. 

However, not entirely content with the role its beloved ancestor played as a lone opposition voice against the Nats for 13 years, the party sought to exaggerate its role in history. It appropriated former ANC president and the face of anti-apartheid struggle, Nelson Mandela, by placing his image side by side with that of Suzman on the campaign pamphlet.

In the same week that the DA sought to distort the liberation struggle history and its own history in it, it also disseminated a campaign document that desecrates the ANC logo while comparing Africa's oldest liberation movement with the apartheid nationalist government. The campaign mischievously draws parallels between the post 1994 tragic events, which this government swiftly condemned and acted against, with the apartheid regime's deliberate brutality and institutionalised criminality against the Black majority. 

The DA has all the right to blow its own trumpet about the role, if any, that it played in history. But it has no right to insult the intelligence of the nation through factual misrepresentation of history, distortion and lies. Whether the choice of Suzman as the face of ‘we also fought for freedom' campaign is advisable is a matter for history to judge.

But to equate the role she played in the anti-apartheid struggle with that of Madiba, by publishing their picture in a friendly embrace as the face of such campaign, is an act of great desperation and political fraudulence. There is no denying that Suzman played a particular role in opposing apartheid as a member of parliament. However, there is also no denying that the public opinion on her role within an unrepresentative system was as divided as that of Margaret Thatcher following her recent death. 

This is because of the indisputable fact that Suzman served in a discredited political system that the United Nations declared a crime against humanity. Her participation in such a system legitimised an unjust order, made her complicit in the horrors unleashed against the majority, and made her role morally indefensible. Author of Apartheid - Illustrated History, Michael Morris, eloquently describes her as a "token in itself of the political complacency of the bulk of white society".

To borrow from L Lagardien's piece, published in Mail & Guardian's Thought Leader following her death in 2009, Suzman chose to participate in an iniquitous structure that was destructive to black society. Some have gone further to call her a ‘stooge of the Nats' - but I will not be so ruthless. 

Because of her participation in such a disgraced system, on behalf of the affluent minority white constituency of Houghton, she often found herself conflicted and speaking with forked tongues on principled issues. For this, she often drew the ire of true revolutionaries in the liberation movements. In his message to the ANC's external mission in 1971, ANC President OR Tambo chastised Suzman, saying she was "clearly in favour of change - but determined to prevent change". 

Despite DA leader Helen Zille bragging that the ANC sought to claim Suzman's legacy as its own, the movement never wanted to associate itself with her. The ANC often attacked her for her condescending claims that she represented the views of the oppressed majority, whose aspirations and sufferings she didn't underebuked her in its 26 November 1970 statement: "Suzman has neither the mandate nor authority to speak on behalf of oppressed masses of South Africa". 

A close scrutiny of her parliamentary activism bear testimony to the ANC's assertion that hers was not the cause the oppressed masses shared. Despite professing to advance the interest of the subjugated Black majority, the positions she often took in and outside of Parliament spoke otherwise. Parliamentary Hansard (records) makes for interesting reading regarding the many controversial bills she supported, including those that limited the rights of Black South Africans, purportedly because - as she was fond of saying - ‘represented a step in the right direction'.

The 1973 Hansard, which contains a record of Assembly budget debate on social welfare and pensions, reflects her vigorous push for an increase in social welfare on a racial basis (i.e. whites only). She openly said in her speech that while she was concerned about all races regarding social welfare, she however sought to "confine myself to the Whites only when I discuss this Vote". Her confining herself to white interests only in this budget debate was remarkable, given abject poverty and harsh conditions under which the Black majority had to live as a result of the discriminatory policies. 

At the heart of the many years of people's struggle for liberation from the devastation of colonialism and apartheid was the fight for the extension of voting rights to all Blacks, who for many years were denied the right to participate in elections and elect the government of their choice. However, Suzman's Progressive Party preferred limited voting rights for Blacks, which meant only 150 000 out of 15 million Black people who held a maximum of seven years of schooling may vote. 

In 1969 the apartheid regime, under Prime Minister BJ Vorster, embarked on what it termed "outward-looking policy" in a bid to galvanise leaders of African states behind its desperate attempt to counter economic and diplomatic sanctions against South Africa. Suzman threw her weight behind the Nats' counter-revolutionary campaign, whose objective was to weaken independent Africa's stance against apartheid.

During her brief visit to Zambia a year later in 1970, Suzman voiced her full support for official diplomatic contact between apartheid South Africa and African countries with a view to end economic sanctions. This angered the ANC and other liberation movements, which regarded economic and diplomatic sanctions as one of the strategic and potent weapons to bring the criminal system of apartheid to its knees. OR Tambo was particularly irritated by Suzman's destructive role: "Suzman and lesser agents of colonialism have turned Africa into a veritable hunting ground for stooges and indigenous agents of racism. 

But Suzman's tour of independent Africa in pursuit of the Nats' charm offensive failed to materialise. Julius Nyerere, for instance, rejected her overtures, saying Tanzania ‘remained utterly opposed to any dialogue as long as South Africa continued with its apartheid policy'. In his 1986 letter to Thatcher, Nigeria's General Olusegun Obasanjo wrote in revulsion against those opposed to sanctions: "Those who seek to minimise sanctions and their effect will have the blood of thousands, if not millions, of innocents on their hands and on their consciences."

In his book, African - A Modern History, Guy Arnold recalls that at a luncheon during her visit to Ghana a guest asked her: ‘Don't you realise that in making a trip of this sort, putting across a view that South Africa is not quite a totalitarian state - that even though you are an opponent of the regime...don't you see that you might well be an unwitting agent of the regime?'

Arnold also notes a scathing Tanzania newspaper editorial, which coupled Suzman with mining magnate Harry Oppenheimer as opposed to apartheid but enjoying the approval and material support of the ‘capitalist West'. The editorial continued: ‘Now it is a social truism that it is he who holds economic power that rules. Political leaders in the bourgeois world are often little more than loyal envoys of financial moguls.

In South Africa, then it is Helen Suzman and her kind, and not John Vorster, who really rule. The Pretoria regime would collapse overnight without the support of big business.' Despite the widespread condemnation by the liberation movements and oppressed masses of this country (on whose behalf she claimed to speak in Parliament) for her support of the Nats' opposition against economic sanctions and disinvestment, Suzman never wavered.

During her visit to the British House of Commons in 1989, she arrogantly reiterated to the international media: "I am against disinvestment and sanction. I totally support Mrs Thatcher on this issue". Thatcher, for years an international face of opposition against sanctions and divestment against apartheid South Africa, was a friend of the apartheid regime and controversially regarded Mandela and the ANC as "terrorists". 

Suzman did not only dedicate her energy protecting the economic interests of the apartheid South Africa, which were enjoyed by the white minority, by rejecting international call for disinvestment. She also used her influence to fight against any international financial donations directed at the liberation movements to help sustain their anti-apartheid programmes.

In 1970, she opposed the decision by the World Council of Churches to grant $200 000 to liberations movements in South Africa to finance their cause, calling the move "ill-advised". It was such controversial positions that further tarnished her international stature, resulting in her being overlooked twice for the Nobel Peace Prize. The award was instead given to Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who expressed support for sanctions - declaring they could not make things worse for the Blacks. 

Much has been made of Mandela's ‘friendship' with Suzman, including her visits to him on Robben Island and the negotiations she facilitated for his release. But Anthony Sampson, author of Mandela - The Authorised Biography, notes that during Suzman's visit to the island in 1969, Mandela maintained that political prisoners should be released just as the Afrikaner rebel Robey Leibbrandt was released despite his treachery during the Second World War.

Her response was to echo the condition the Nats gave to Madiba for his release: that until he had renounced and abandoned violence she could not ask for his release. Armed struggle, according Madiba, was forced on the people by the murderous government. "And if they want us now to give it up, the ball is in their court. They must legalise us, treat us as a political party and negotiate with us," Madiba stressed. Although Suzman opposed the use of arms by the liberation movement to defend the defenceless masses against criminal and barbaric regime, she seemed not to mind the apartheid regime replenishing its arsenal. 

At the time which the regime escalated violent attacks against whoever dared challenge the system, which included murders, banishment, persecutions, ambushes and harassments, Suzman stood with the Nats in endorsement of the British's arms sale to the murderous state. The resumption of arms trade to South Africa was against UN Security Council resolutions of 1963, which called all member states to "cease forthwith the sale and shipment of arms, ammunition of all types and military vehicles to South Africa". Alfred Nzo, ANC secretary-general at the time, condemned the British's decision as an "act of international banditry" in his letter to the United Nations. 

DA's Zille today has the audacity to paint the ANC and the deliberate acts of criminality and institutionalised violence perpetrated by the Nats with the same apartheid brush. But what she is conveniently omitting is the role this arms sale, which her former leader supported, played in those mass killings that took place in Sharpeville, Soweto, Matola in Mozambique, Kassinga in Namibia and other areas. 

Revolutionaries could not trust Suzman due to her double agenda. Such double agenda was inevitable given the compromised position she found herself as so-called "human rights activist" serving a discredited system designed to advance gross human rights violations. Former SACP chairman Joe Slovo's assertion during his 1983 Ruth First lecture is reflective of the deserved contempt with which revolutionaries held Suzman: "Mrs Suzman and I may both be against apartheid but we are certainly not both for liberation".

Slovo and First were amongst the many white revolutionaries who, unlike Suzman, shunned the comfort and privileges of the apartheid parliament and rejected to participate in the election in which the majority of South Africans were not allowed to participate. To borrow from Obasanjo's letter to Thatcher, these true white revolutionaries refused to be part of the white minority who enjoyed "a ‘Dallas' lifestyle at the expense of the great majority forced to endure conditions as degrading as anything I have seen anywhere." 

After her death on 1 January 2009, the ANC - despite its clashes with her during apartheid - said in a statement that it "remembers and respects the contribution of Suzman towards the demise of apartheid". This is because as a movement that is rooted in the ancient African traditions of Ubuntu, which teaches us never to talk ill of the departed; this is the part of Suzman's history the ANC would rather not talk about. It is unfortunate and regrettable that, due to reckless and mischievous political posturing of her successors, we are today forced to reflect on this painful and unfortunate part of our history. We would have preferred that she is left to rest in peace.

Moloto Mothapo is ANC spokesman in parliament.

Click here to sign up to receive our free daily headline email newsletter