Remarks of Tony Leon at the Dene Smuts Tribute: Parliament, Cape Town, 12 May 2016
Thank You Mmusi;
Markus and Julia and family and friends of Dene.
In the deep sadness which engulfs us all in the sudden passing three weeks ago of dear friend and stalwart colleague Dene Smuts, there is something very fitting that this commemoration is being held in this Old Assembly Chamber of Parliament.
If you look into the furthest reaches of the back benches here then that was the place way back in September 1989 that Dene and I first met as newly elected MP’s to the last Tricameral parliament of this country.
And it was here that Dene as the Member of Parliament for Groote Schuur found her political voice and shared her singular views as South Africa went about dismantling the old order of 350 years and planted on our stony southern soil of past conflict and entrenched racism the hopeful flag of a new non-racial democracy.
For all my deep regret at the sadness which bears upon us today, as we reflect upon dear Dene taken from us far too soon, I do claim one advantage of a much happier and fairly recent time.
On 13 April 2014 at Bishops School I had the privilege in the very live presence of Dene and her political supporters of bidding farewell to her public life as she stood down after 25 extraordinary and exemplary years as a Member of Parliament.
On that occasion I suggested that the new MPs who would be elected to parliament in the election later that month would do well to look upon Dene and learn from her career. I suggested then, and now that Dene has left us can repeat today with even greater feeling and emphasis, that there were and are two types of politicians (and perhaps some who inhabit the muddle in the middle between them both).
You can either be a weather vane or a signpost. If you are the former, you will twist in the wind, depend for your key advisor on the last person you spoke to or the last opinion poll you consulted. You will suck up to those in power and trim your sails to the prevailing winds of political correctness. That is the easy path of least resistance but it usually leads, over time, downhill. Or you can be that rarer bird in the political aviary, a signpost which does not bend to the vagaries of the moment but stands for a cause greater than personal advancement or temporary vote winning, for an enduring set of principles and beliefs. Beyond argument, Dene belongs to the second category. That incidentally, did not make her the easiest of most agreeable of colleagues, but over time it served this party and its causes with unusual distinction.
In the same tribute I compared Dene’s ability to stand up alone if necessary in a room or council overflowing with consensus for sometimes unpopular or contrary views which she believed to be right as a political incarnation of the biblical queen Esther who proclaimed Kom ek om so kom ek om (If I perish, then I perish).
But on further reflection and knowing of Dene’s deep religious faith I think her extraordinary and consequential career in our public life was a glorious and gritty fulfilment of the injunction offered in Luke 12.48
For unto whom much is given, of him much shall be required; and to whom men have committed much, of him they will ask the more.
Now in the twenty years which Dene and I shared on the parliamentary benches of this place and in the public life of South Africa I have so many memories of her, vivid and rich and complex just as she lived her life and practised her politics.
I was so pleased to learn that Dene had completed her memoirs and biography just before she died. Like so many pieces of legislation which she inked, and clauses in the constitution which she helped to draft, it will live on beyond her passing as record, testament and reflection.
I do not know what she entitled it but I would, if I was to summarise her life and her achievement, offer it one of two titles –
Worth the Fighting For or perhaps On My Own Terms
Because while Dene was paradoxically the most loyal of colleagues, she had singular views and was never afraid to express them against all comers – the good, the great and the less than good and the downright useless. She called things as she saw them and dug in her heels whenever necessary.
Now when the Democratic Party was reduced at the dawn of democracy in 1994 , to just 7 MP’s, Dene and Douglas Gibson and Ken Andrew –both of whom are with us today – and I along with very few colleagues and even fewer resources had to juggle a myriad tasks and a hundred commitments. This was a time, ironically, of both political survival and national renewal.
I had just been elected leader of the party in 1994 and one of the early decisions of our young strategist Ryan Coetzee was that most of these resources should be placed in the leader’s office. Dene was mightily unimpressed. She told our small caucus that one ‘’could hear the sucking sound of our resources being pulled into the west wing” as she ironically termed the rather modest offices reserved for the DP leader on the 5th floor of the Marks Building.
But the term “West Wing” stuck forever and a day. A year or so later, one of our bright young researchers James Myburgh penned a polemic on the race quotas and the like then appearing across the political landscape. He provocatively entitled it “The Death of the Rainbow Nation?” Dene did not much like the document and termed it the “Death Document” a name which attached to it forever more.
But it wasn’t just politics and legislating which consumed us at the time, but finalising the new constitution. As you know Dene played such a stellar role in that process, first at Kempton Park during Codesa and later right here in the Constitutional Assembly .
Of that time, my brother Peter, who was much involved in the DP constitutional preparations, remarked to me once that Dene and the late Colin Eglin (another of our band of 7 MPs in 1994) were the “finest constitutional lawyers in the room though in truth the one is a journalist and the other a quantity surveyor.”
Somehow through all the occasional peaks and more often the valleys which marked the political landscape for our party in those challenging times, Dene and I forged a durable friendship. I once told her that we were like an old married couple – a lot of quarrels, a lot of affection and an occasional diplomatic loss of hearing!
But it was indeed the fact that Dene, a single mother, raised during this intensely busy time two extraordinary children Markus and Julia and midst the helter skelter of such a demanding life which speaks to her as such a rounded and successful human being.
It was as the political fortunes of this party turned around in 1999 that Dene proved to me just how essential her empathy and warmth could be. At that time my then -not -wife Michal arrived in South Africa with two young children who could barely speak English and had little idea of how to navigate the often treacherous shoals of the social ways of southern suburbs Cape Town. It was Dene who reached out to her and to them and enveloped them in warmth and understanding and true affection. Perhaps this in part explains why Dene –so modern in so many of her views, had such an old fashioned appreciation of the cause of Zionism.
We know how Dene practised” the mathematics of legislating” as she once described to David Maynier the line-by-line work required to improve the Protection of State Information Bill on which she worked such amendments. Just as she had done on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission laws, the communications bills and of course on the constitution itself. There were so many fine moments and so many finest hours.
But in conclusion let me take you back to a moment which showed this parliament and our departed dear friend Dene at their very best.
It was a glorious summer Cape Town day, 26 March 1998. Parliament was to receive, in the radiant presence of President Nelson Mandela, the first address from a serving US President Bill Clinton then in his second term of office.
Our Speaker Frene Ginwala had chosen an opposition MP to deliver the vote of thanks after Clinton’s stirring speech. Dene Smuts was selected for this task. She appeared in a shimmering white outfit and delivered a speech of extraordinary grace and concision. Afterward, when Mandela introduced me to Clinton, he remarked to me, “That lady is from your Party? Damn fine speech she made just now.”
But in her, as always, carefully chosen words that day Dene reminded President Clinton of another speech delivered by another famous US politician in Cape Town back on June 6 1966. It was the Day of Affirmation speech of Senator Robert F. Kennedy at the University of Cape Town. The words she chose from it also appear on the headstone of his grave at Arlington National Cemetery. They also can serve as the epitaph to the exemplary life and career of Dene Smuts and as inspiration to draw from it :
Few will have the greatness to bend history itself but each of us can work to change a small portion of events, and in the total of those acts will be written the history of this generation…each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope, and crossing each other from a million centres of energy and daring those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression and resistance.