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South Africa: Icon of Another Kind Goes

The death of Helen Suzman, a member for 36 years of the "parliament" of apartheid South Africa has evoked fulsome tributes. An honest tribute would portray a complex life and a multifaceted personality of a person who also saw a moral equivalence between the violence of the apartheid regime and the violent resistance of the African National Congress.







In respect of public figures, death should

South Africa: Icon of Another

be an occasion for honest assessment, not mindlessly fulsome praise. This is not the

Kind Goes

case with the tributes that Suzman has received. For, in all these laudatory notices, there has been no reference to the obvious M S Prabhakara implications of her 36-year-long career

The death of Helen Suzman, a member for 36 years of the “parliament” of apartheid South Africa has evoked fulsome tributes. An honest tribute would portray a complex life and a multifaceted personality of a person who also saw a moral equivalence between the violence of the apartheid regime and the violent resistance of the African National Congress.

M S Prabhakara ( has been closely following South African affairs for many years and during much of the 1990s he was based in South Africa.

Economic & Political Weekly

january 17, 2009

he death of Helen Suzman (7 November 1917-1 January 2009) at her home in Johannesburg has been the occasion of a profusion of tributes to this “fighter against apartheid” in South Africa. Though there was no state funeral, as suggested by archbishop Desmond Tutu, official South Africa did order the national flag to be flown half mast on 4 January, the day of her funeral which was attended, among others, by two former heads of state, F W de Klerk and Thabo Mbeki and a host of other political leaders. The leaders of the dissident Congress of the People (COPE) who walked away from the African National Congress to form this new party have been rather more fulsome than the ANC in their tribute. The smaller opposition parties have been effusive in praising Helen S uzman for her “fight against apartheid”.

The death of any person almost always induces in those that are living “a feelgood factor” in respect of the departed person. Even bitter political opponents in life go into the sentimental mode, at least in their public tributes, to a dead rival who they had hated in life. The faults and failings, occasionally even the crimes, of the dead are forgotten, and only the good things are remembered – or if necessary, manufactured. This is as it should be, the consensus, not to speak of conventional wisdom, runs, for death cancels out everything else. In reality death cancels out nothing except the life of the dead person.

(1953-89) as a member of the so-called parliament called “House of Assembly”, a monstrous abomination if ever there was one.

She was successively “elected” to this utterly illegitimate structure whose basis was an “electorate” of less than 15% of the population comprising exclusively of English and Afrikaans speaking whites, from the United Party, the Progressive Party and the Progressive Federal Party. The 165 members of this “House” were elected from constituencies which had on the average around 5,000 voters – this in a country whose population according to the 1980 census figures was 31,588,260, including the so-called “independent” Homelands, the Bantustans.

Typically, Suzman and other white liberals, barring exceptions like Frederick van Zyl Slabbert and Alex Boraine who quit when the going was still good for them, could never see, let alone acknowledge, that their very participation in that abomination invested it with legitimacy. Openly contemptuous of the apartheid regime, even while respectful of individuals like one of the Speakers who always “acknowledged” her and so enabled her to intervene in a debate, she makes no secret of her annoyance that her portrait which hung on the walls of that “parliament” was removed, along with other relics of apartheid, by the democratic government after 1994. She was also very vocal in “parliament”, and made no secret of her contempt for the Boer.


It is true that Suzman took a lot of interest in prison reforms, visited prisons regularly, passed on the complaints she received, spoke regularly in “parliament” on the horrible prison conditions. Among her other interests were civil rights, law and order, urban black affairs and w omen’s affairs. In all this, her objective was to do as much as she could within the system to alleviate the horrible conditions in which the black majority lived. She explains these in her memoirs (In No U ncertain Terms, Jonathan Ball, J ohannesburg 1993) from which these are summarised. In the context of the kragdadigheid of Grand Apartheid, she undoubtedly helped many who were profuse in their gratitude.

Nelson Mandela himself is a supreme example of one who recalls with pleasure and gratitude her visits to Robben Island and Pollsmoor and Victor Verster, the three prisons where he and his colleagues were imprisoned. Many political prisoners and even ordinary prisoners noted (as recorded by Suzman) that her visit, which she as a member of “parliament” had to notify in advance to the authorities, meant a dramatic improvement in their living conditions, especially food, though she never reports in her book what happened after she returned.

On reading her memoirs, one feels that like a true liberal, she relished a fight; but it was the fight she relished, not the cause, which explains her antipathy to the struggle that the ANC and its allies including the South African Communist Party launched outside the framework set by the regime. She could never see that after Sharpeville, resistance to apartheid had no option but to fight.

Further, like all liberals, Suzman saw a moral equivalence between the institutionalised violence of apartheid and the struggle against apartheid that, admittedly, took on a violent form after Sharpeville when there was no other way. The Afrikaans noun cited earlier, “kragdadigheid”, defined in the Dictionary of South African English on Historical Principles (OUP 1996) to mean “uncompromising autocracy, brute force”, has a citation from a speech that Helen Suzman made in “parliament”


on 29 April 1963 to illustrate its usage:

As extreme white nationalism is fed by crisis situations and tough measures which are then taken to deal with those situations, so too does Black nationalism feed on this type of so-called ‘kragdadigheid’.

So, in this neat, balancing formula, there is really no understanding of the complex trajectory of the ANC, from the exclusivist and Africanist nationalism of its early years to the non-racial (not multiracial, which is a just a fancy word for apartheid) politics post-Freedom Charter (1955) and more particularly post-Kabwe (1985) when the non-racial ideology of the freedom charter was structurally incorporated into the organisation.

Helen Suzman however became, at least in the liberal western media, a true “fighter against apartheid”, exceptional because she was also white. One has only to think of a wholly different stream of other fighters, broadly of the same class and cultural background (white, upper and middle class) like Molly Fischer or Ruth First, or Sonia Bunting or Hilda Bernstein to see the difference between symbol and substance, gestures and actions, words and deeds.

january 17, 2009

Economic & Political Weekly

Referees Consulted in 2007 and 2008

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Jung Golay, Pravesh 58 Prabhakara, M S 87 Yadav, Yogendra
Economic & Political Weekly january 17, 2009 25

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