Mangosuthu Buthelezi’s Weekly Newsletter to the Nation – Helen Suzman
My dear friends and fellow South Africans,
Next Wednesday, November 07, we will celebrate the 90th birthday of South Africa’s doyen of liberalism and, if I may say, a tad irreverently, our favourite ‘blue-eyed gal’: Mrs Helen Suzman. I can call her that, younger readers, because we’ve been friends since the 1960’s.
The many tributes to Helen next week will record that she was one of the many people who were madly pulling at the ropes of apartheid inside and outside of South Africa. Like so many others, she has not been given the recognition she deserves. I hope that this will be rectified. I have expressed concern before in my newsletter how easily context and significant information can be airbrushed out of historical narratives: history is often shaped by the narrator.
The presentation of history, for example, at the Apartheid Museum in Johannesburg is heavily in the direction of the ruling party and its associates in the struggle, but I understand that a display of the role Mrs Suzman in South Africa’s history has been expanded there at least.
It would be a travesty if Mrs Suzman’s role were not given prominent recognition in our struggle narrative.
Mrs Suzman tirelessly used her position to break the apartheid mould in a profoundly undemocratic whites-only parliament. She demonstrated raw courage in curbing some of the worst excesses of the apartheid government with her forensic parliamentary skills and relentless badgering of National Party politicians to, occasionally, do the right thing.
She also gave me unstinting encouragement when dallying with black politicians was not the smartest thing to do. On one occasion in the 1960’s, after attending a Progressive Federal Party seminar, my brother-in-law, Dr Dotwana and I were stopped in our car at a roadblock in Germiston. One of the policemen spotted a leaflet on the backseat of the car containing pictures of Helen Suzman and Dr Verwoerd with a scathing attack on the Prime Minister. I was arrested and driven to the office of the Security Police in Germiston. In the meantime someone had been in contact with Mrs Suzman who promptly called the police, demanding that I be released immediately, which I was.
We sometimes differed, as friends of course do, but we never stopped talking and we always give each other a big hug when we see each other. We have never differed on the fundamentals.
Opposing revolutionary change and violence, we recognised the complexity of the situation in South Africa. Blacks here, we both noted, were not a homogenous group and this would require constitutional allowances in any future, preferably federalist, political framework for the country. What we ended up with was rather less than what we had hoped for.
We both rejected rapid and imposed solutions that would likely result in anarchy and hardship for the people that this approach was supposed to help. This was the preferred route in the radical Left’s opinion. For this reason, we both dismissed sanctions as a mere gesture that would not make any strategic sense.
We also both had an ally in Britain: Lady Thatcher. One on occasion, we both went to see her at 10 Downing Street in 1986. A few weeks later, in an amusing interlude, the then Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, a Mr Neil Kinnock, who had lathered himself up into a fine state of righteous indignation at Questions to the Prime Minister, looked apoplectic when the Prime Minister approvingly quoted a letter that I wrote to the left-leaning Guardian opposing sanctions and violence. "Yes The Guardian carries excellent letters" the Iron Lady proclaimed. Then the Prime Minister cited an article by Mrs Suzman that had also appeared in The Times that same week. Speaking about sanctions, she said: "The likely effect in South Africa would be the imposition of a siege economy and more repression."
Mrs Suzman and Lady Thatcher are cut from the same cloth. Both are conviction politicians with an unerring sense of certitude. Spin, for both I suspect, is something that washing machines, and not politicians, do. Mrs Suzman gave no quarter to her opponents and did not expect any.
She played a straight bat and played it for all it was worth. She always said what she meant, and meant what she said. And this brings me directly on to what lessons we can learn for the future from Mrs Suzman’s career.
Mrs Suzman’s "impeccably informed gift of debate hits the bull’s eye of apartheid laws", to quote her friend Nadine Gordimer. This places her in the dizzy ranks of the best parliamentary performers of all time. She would have been as dazzling in Westminster, the mother of parliamentary democracy, as she was in the old South African parliament. Heaven knows what she makes of the tenor of today’s debates in the National Assembly.
Whist I agree that we must improve the resources available to parliamentarians, their paucity is not a defence for mediocrity. Yes, in part, our electoral system militates against effective parliamentary democracy. For decades, Mrs Suzman had to answer to the good people of Houghton. I understand that the only assistance she had, apart from her intelligence and graft, was one researcher. Yet she also demonstrated, like David versus Goliath, that good can triumph over evil and right can prevail over might. Her stones and sling, as I mentioned earlier, are her supple ability to marshal facts and the crisp conviction with which she delivers her argument.
Opposition politicians often whine about the overwhelming strength of the ruling-party, as if it’s an injustice they won and get to push their agenda through! A tiny lady, but a lioness in stature, demonstrated the power of one who stands up to unjust laws and bullies.
There is just one last point that I would like to make about Mrs Suzman.
She is blessed with a wonderfully dry sense of humour. In the midst of apartheid’s despair and injustice (much of which still persists), she saw the funny side of life. She enjoys the nuances and ironies of human nature. After all, are these not the attributes that make us interesting as human beings? All too often we seem fixated by a collective hand-wringing angst about our country’s destiny. One of the reasons that people like Mrs Suzman fought such a valiant fight was so that we could also do that most human of things: laugh.
When God made Helen, He, to use a well-worn metaphor, broke the mould.
We won’t see the likes of her again for a long time. Happy Birthday Helen!
Prince Mangosuthu Buthelezi MP