The DA's untold story - Helen Zille

DA leader says it is shocking how many people think her party would bring back apartheid if it won power

The DA's untold story

Note to Editors: This extract is based on a speech delivered by the DA Leader at the launch of the Our DA Campaign in Alexandra, Gauteng today.

Colleagues and fellow democrats, we are here today to launch a campaign. It is not an election campaign. It is more important than that.

We are here to tell the untold story of the DA, a story that many South Africans have never heard.  It is a story about who we are, where we come from and where we are going. We want every South African to know this story.

We have not been particularly good at telling it. So we must take responsibility for the fact that many people don't really know much about us and what we want for South Africa.  

Like any political party, there are many strands to our history. But in recent years, the DA's strongest strand, the golden thread around which the party's tapestry has been woven for more than half a century, has somehow become obscured, even invisible. And so, for the next few months, we are going to draw out this central thread, so that we can strengthen the fabric of South Africa's democracy.  

The DA's story is part of the great South African tapestry. We have had our share of victories and defeats; triumphs and tragedies.  But for too long we have allowed our political opponents to define us. 

When I travel around South Africa, it truly shocks me to hear that many people think the DA would bring back apartheid if we won an election. There are a significant number of people who think the DA was responsible for apartheid, and that Helen Suzman was a member of the ANC. I ask myself how we allowed these false perceptions to take root. 

From today, we must take responsibility for changing them. 

We need to start by turning back the clock more than half a century. It is the year 1959. The National Party has been in power for just over a decade. Its policy of apartheid is denying black South Africans their rights on a scale never seen before.

It is the one of the darkest chapter in our country's history.

In 1959, a small group of 11 Members of Parliament broke away from the United Party to form the Progressive Party to oppose apartheid and fight for a democratic South Africa. 

Jan Steytler, the first leader of the Progressives, defined the new party's vision. He said:

"Colour and colour alone should not be the yardstick by which people are judged. We consider that all South Africans should be given the opportunity to make a contribution to the political and economic life of our country. We want to face the future, not with fear but with confidence that we can live together in harmony in a multi-racial country."

This was the birth of the Party that has become the Democratic Alliance.  The Progressive Party was founded on the values the DA still champions today.

In those days, not many voters supported us. Despite the hard work of a dedicated team, Helen Suzman was the only Progressive Party MP elected for thirteen years.  She was the only MP who consistently and relentlessly fought against every apartheid measure the National Party sought to entrench in law. 

She opposed the law that required every black South African to carry a pass book at all times.

She opposed the law that allowed police to detain someone - first for 90 days and later for 180 days - without bringing them to trial.

She opposed the notorious Group Areas Act - a law that forced people to live in separate areas on the basis of race, and that pushed black people to the outskirts of towns and cities, far away from jobs

She resisted the forced removals implemented under the Group Areas Act that destroyed whole communities.

She opposed laws that reserved certain job categories for whites; laws that segregated beaches, parks, toilets and transport; and laws that told people who they could love and marry.

And, although we didn't have the numbers in parliament to block these laws, Helen's relentless opposition to them, on our behalf, shone an international spotlight on the atrocities of apartheid and helped mobilise support for anti-apartheid campaigns, throughout the world.

Helen was also a champion for the rights of workers. She demanded trade union rights for all and fought for better wages and working conditions.

She also visited prisons and secured better conditions for prisoners. Nelson Mandela would later write this about her first visit to Robben Island:

"It was an odd and wonderful sight to see this courageous woman peering into our cells and strolling around our courtyard. She was the first and only woman to grace our cells."

Helen's work made a big impact, on many young people including myself.  I saved money from odd jobs to travel to Cape Town, and get a ticket to the Parliamentary gallery to watch her debating.  I was awestruck at her ability to speak so powerfully on every measure that came before the House.  

While other parties had a range of MPs, each with their own portfolios, Helen had to be a specialist on everything.  She did it with the help of a dedicated team behind the scenes, some of whom are still with us here today. They helped her research countless speeches and hundreds of questions on housing, education, forced removals, the effects of the Pass Law, detentions, bannings, whippings, torture, police brutality and executions.  Even when it seemed hopeless, they kept on going because they had a purpose.  They believed in what South Africa could become.

In the election of 1974, we celebrated a small breakthrough (which we thought enormous at the time) when 5 more Progressives were elected as Members of Parliament to join Helen in her fight.  

This team was the most effective opposition to the National Party in Parliament. Among many other things, we denounced, on an international stage, the government's brutal crushing of the 1976 Soweto Uprising.

Above all, we resisted the government's plan to strip black South Africans of their citizenship through apartheid's Bantustan policy.

In 1978 we helped expose the channelling of public funds to a pro-government newspaper as part of the apartheid government's propaganda war - a scandal that led to the resignation of then Prime Minister BJ Vorster.

In the 1980s we opposed the border war in Angola and the State of Emergency. Members of the party met the ANC for talks in Lusaka and lobbied PW Botha to grant the Sharpeville 6 a reprieve from their death sentences.

In the years leading up to South Africa's first free and fair election, we played a pivotal role in negotiating our democratic Constitution. 

Not many people know that the Constitution that emerged from the Codesa negotiations has its roots in the Molteno Commission set up by the Progressive Party back in 1961. We recommended a national convention, an entrenched Constitution, a bill of rights, a common voters' roll, a clearly defined role for the provinces and an independent judiciary. We had been preparing for the constitutional negotiations for three decades, and we were ready for them when they finally came. That is why our team played such a crucial role in shaping our country's founding compact. 

37 years after Helen Suzman helped launch Parliament's first progressive, non-racial party, Nelson Mandela asked her to accompany him when he signed the Constitution into law in 1996. It was, and remains, a document that contained so many of her values and beliefs. 

Madiba's gesture on that historic day was a measure of the respect that one great South African held for another. He went on to say this about Helen Suzman:

"Your courage, integrity and principled commitment to justice have marked you as one of the outstanding figures in the history of public life in South Africa."

In the DA today there are many, many people who struggled bravely and often at great personal cost against apartheid. There were so many people, men and women from across the country and from every imaginable background.  At the time they did not think of themselves as heroes, they were ordinary people who were doing what they could, where they were, with what they had.  Looking back today, we know their efforts were heroic. They built the foundation on which we stand today.

Some have their roots in the ANC, the Black Consciousness Movement, the UDF and the PAC. Others were trade unionists. Many were detained, harassed or even imprisoned for the part they played in the struggle.

People from all political traditions are coming together in the DA because they want to build a constitutional democracy in which every person, whatever the circumstances of their history or birth, has the freedom and the means to live a life they value. 

Like my friend and colleague, Patricia de Lille, the Mayor of Cape Town, who began work in a paint factory and, became a leader in the trade union movement. She started out as a shop steward for the South African Chemical Workers' Union or SACWU. She soon became SACWU's regional secretary, and later a member of its National Executive Committee of SACWU. When the PAC and other political organisations were unbanned in 1990, Patricia led the PAC delegation at the CODESA negotiations. She broke with the PAC to lead a new party, the Independent Democrats, and became the first woman to lead a political party in South Africa.  And as we discussed the challenges of the day, we became friends and then political colleagues.

And like our retired Federal Chairperson, Joe Seremane, who traces his earliest political memories back to the defiance campaign in 1952 when, at the age of 14, he walked into a post office in Johannesburg through the ‘whites only' entrance. Ever since that first act of defiance, Joe was committed to fighting apartheid with everything he had. In 1963, when he was just 22 years old, he was captured by the security police and was charged with ‘furthering the objectives of a banned organisation' - the PAC. They sent him to Robben Island for 6 years for that. 

After he was released, Joe was banished to Mafikeng and wasn't allowed to leave the town. But the security police thought he would radicalise the young people in Mafikeng, so in March 1976 he was detained and held for 28 months without being charged, mostly in solitary confinement and suffered severe torture.  He lost a brother in exile in horrific circumstances, and has striven to this day to uncover the truth behind his murder.

Our Federal Chairperson, Wilmot James, became politically active at the University of the Western Cape in 1972 when he joined the South Africa Students Organisation, an anti-apartheid black consciousness movement. Because of this involvement, the security police detained him for a month at Victor Verster prison in 1976. He joined the UDF soon after its formation in 1983. Wilmot later led IDASA, the organisation that facilitate dialogue between antagonists in the struggle particularly the ANC and the NP in Lusaka, Dakar and Germany. 

Our newest colleague and friend, Nosimo Balindlela, the former Premier of the Eastern Cape, first became involved in the struggle against apartheid at the University of Fort Hare. Her family was forcibly removed to Middeldrift in the Eastern Cape. She joined the United Democratic Front when it was formed, and her political activism led to her dismissal from many of the schools at which she worked. And then she rose through the ranks in the ANC to become, first a leader of the Women's League and later the Provincial Premier.  

And then there is Basil Kivedo, the Mayor of Breede Vallei, who became politically active at the young age of 16 - initially with the Youth Forum of the Christian Institute under the leadership of Beyers Naude, and later as a student activist at UWC. By the time Basil reached university, he was a radical anti-apartheid activist in the Black Consciousness Movement and rose serve on the Provincial Executive. He, and one of his students Wilmot James, led the campus protests in 1973 and played a role in the 1976 uprising. Basil worked closely with the late Seve Biko and Abraham Tiro, the student leader assassinated by a parcel bomb in exile in Gabarone.  

In 1980, Basil was jailed for his political activities, spending 14 months in solitary confinement at the Victor Verster prison and experienced the techniques of the notorious "wet bag torturer" Jeff Benzien who later applied for amnesty to the Truth and Reconciliation. On his release, Basil joined the ANC's military wing Umkhonto we Sizwe, and received military training in Tanzania, and mobilised MK's Bonteheuwel Military Wing.  After demobilisation he was in a task team involved with the re-integration of Umkhonto and the SA National Defence Force.

None of the people I have mentioned ever did these things with any sense of heroism or personal aggrandizement. They were just determined to save South Africa from a future defined by the oppression they knew all too well.   

Today we acknowledge the debt of gratitude South Africa owes to each one, and thousands of other unsung heroes - from all political traditions and organisations.

I cannot hold a candle to any of them, but I was fortunate that my own background was very different from that of most white South Africans, and for that I have to thank my parents. Having left Germany in the 1930s, they had experienced racial bigotry, exclusion, oppression, tyranny and finally genocide within their own circle of friends and families. This shaped their own view of the world, and they passed on their passionate hatred of prejudice to their three children of which I am the eldest.  

My mother joined the Black Sash early on and volunteered in their advice office.  My dad bought the liberal newspaper, the Rand Daily Mail every morning on the way to school and discussed the issues of the day with me. This shaped my world-view. In high school I joined the Young Progressives. 

The small band of "Young Progs" walked the streets in elections, campaigning for Helen Suzman.  And when I was lucky enough to win a place as a cadet journalist at the Rand Daily Mail I had the guidance of truly outstanding editors. Allister Sparks did more than any other person outside my family to shape my understanding of South Africa, and gave me opportunities that few other young people had. He sent me to cover the brutal realities of apartheid South Africa  --  the consequences of the pass laws, forced removals, the Soweto uprising and deaths in detention. It was under his guidance that I was able to write the story about the real reason for the death in detention of Steve Biko, who did not die of a hunger strike, as the apartheid government tried to tell the world. He was murdered. The Rand Daily Mail had the courage to expose these horrors without the constitutional protections of the right to a free media or free speech. Now and again I had to leave my small flat on the on the outskirts of Hillbrow and go and live elsewhere for a while, till the threats subsided.   This was a normal part of many journalists' lives. 

When things became too hot for our newspaper proprietors to handle, Allister was fired and I resigned and came to live in the little house I had bought in a part of Woodstock in Cape Town that had miraculously escaped the ravages of the Group Areas Act.  It was one of the few remaining rainbow communities in the heart of apartheid South Africa. I joined the Black Sash, the End Conscription Campaign and the Open City Initiative. Like many others, I was arrested, but unlike others, I had my day in court when I was charged (for being in what was described as a "black group area" without a "permit"). I was duly found guilty and given a suspended prison sentence.

Through the facilitation of the Black Sash, my husband and I made our home available to ANC activists hiding from the security police during the state of emergency in 1987. I was deeply touched recently when I re-connected with the grandson of one of them thanks to the power of the social networking site, Twitter.

So many South Africans are part of the DA's growing circle, and it is one of the reasons that I am so confident South Africa will succeed as a democracy. Resistance to oppression and power-abuse runs deep in our veins.

The DA has grown so fast, because we have been able to convince people from many different backgrounds that racial nationalism is a dead-end, and that South Africa can only thrive as an open, opportunity society for all. We have grown, and continue to grow, without sacrificing our principles, our values or our vision for South Africa. All DA members of today - regardless of their previous affiliations - are dedicated to the vision that Helen Suzman championed so long ago.  

These are the pioneers we celebrate today. They include people like Joe Seremane, Patricia de Lille, Wilmot James, Basil Kivedo, Nosimo Balindlela. We are here today so that we can honour our past, and enable all young South Africans to own the future.  

The Democratic Alliance was and remains part of South Africa's struggle for freedom.  So were many others. But as Coretta Scott-King, Martin Luther King Junior's widow, so profoundly put it: "The struggle for freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation." That is why we are building a new, diverse majority in South Africa, on the foundations of the best ideas we inherited from our past.

And that is why so many young South Africans want to be part of it.

Issued by the DA, April 13 2013

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