Celebrating Helen Suzman – A Bright Star in a Dark
Chamber. F Antonie. MJoTA 2013 v7n2 p0618
Edited from an article published on May 2, 2013 by Francis Antonie, Director,
Helen Suzman Foundation.
ANC, after her death on 1 January 2009, …. "remembers
and respects the contribution of Suzman towards the demise of apartheid".
The President himself attended her funeral.
I recall a few acknowledgments made by eminent
leaders of the anti-Apartheid struggle regarding Suzman’s role.
In 1963, Albert Luthuli, then President of the ANC,
wrote to Helen Suzman and expressed his “deep appreciation and admiration for
your heroic and lone stand against a most reactionary Parliament...I most
heartily congratulate you for your untiring efforts in a situation that would
frustrate and benumb many. For ever remember, you are a bright Star in a dark
Chamber...Not only ourselves – your contemporaries, but also posterity, will
hold you in high esteem”.
In 1964, Ruth First wrote to Helen Suzman, “I
admire tremendously your sledge-hammer attack on [the 90 day detention law] and
so many other vital issues. In the House at least you have to fight almost
single handed and, apart from the scandal that the real anti-Nationalist fight
has been whittled down to the efforts of one intrepid member, you seem to get
in as many blows as any team could manage.”
In 1965, Veronica Sobukwe (wife of Robert Sobukwe) wrote
describing her as a “parliamentarian of outstanding competence, whose integrity
is unimpeachable and one who has made a name for herself as an untiring
champion of liberty for all men, irrespective of race, colour or creed.”
In 1986, Winnie Mandela wrote (in a manuscript inscription
on a book she gave her) to her “dearest friend Helen” and predicted, “one day
the nation will honour your tremendous work – your fight for our human rights.
You’ve always truly been one of us”. In 2007, Winnie Madikizela–Mandela
again wrote calling her a “wonderful faithful loyal friend...not only for me
but every black South African whose life you have touched.”
In 1989, upon her retirement and while he was still
incarcerated in Victor Verster Prison, Nelson Mandela paid tribute to Helen
Suzman in the following terms “None can do more than her duty on earth. The
countless tributes you received on your retirement from Parliament show that
you acquitted yourself beyond words.”
Nelson Mandela went on to recognise her important role
in the demise of Apartheid and the emergence of a democratic South
Africa. In 1995, in a further manuscript inscription, he described her as
a “redoubtable veteran of many campaigns” and one “who has contributed
impressively to the victory of the democratic forces of our country”.
In 1998, he wrote again, calling her “a world famous veteran freedom fighter
who has earned enormous respect far beyond the borders of our country”.
In 2002, in a message for her 85th birthday, he paid tribute to her and noted
that her “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” and to let her know “how fortunate our country feels for having had you
as part of its public life and politics”.
She stood up in Parliament and opposed Apartheid
unequivocally. For 13 years, she was the only MP to do so. She took on
every Apartheid bill and subjected it to criticism of the most penetrating,
detailed and coruscating kind. Utterly fearless and devastatingly
articulate, she confronted the scores of Nationalist MPs and bullying
Ministers. She took them on, time after time, in speech after speech.
She opposed the Tricameral Parliament in 1983 because it
sought to permanently disenfranchise Black South Africans. And, to avoid any
doubt, her non-racial approach always extended to the franchise.
In the early days, her party was in favour of a
franchise based on certain basic educational or property qualification. It was
never one qualified by race, and from 1978, the party supported an entirely
unqualified and universal adult franchise. Suzman was unwavering in her support
for a Bill of Rights and the principle of the Rule of Law - defining features
of our current liberal constitutional democracy.
It is a matter of public record that she not merely
vociferously opposed the use of violence by the Apartheid regime, but
repeatedly exposed in Parliament many of its worst instances.
Indeed, one of Helen Suzman’s most important
contributions was to use her Parliamentary position to highlight the injustices
and violence of Apartheid and bringing to light facts that would otherwise have
been covered up. She did this by posing question after question in the House,
thereby evading the censorship that then existed and bringing numerous
iniquities to light.
When told by a Minister that her questions were an
embarrassment to South Africa, she famously retorted that it was not her
questions but his answers that were the cause of the embarrassment. She
also famously and repeatedly called for Nelson Mandela’s release – as for so
many other political prisoners. This is all recorded in Hansard.
Finally, and perhaps most importantly, she used her
Parliamentary position to assist the many victims of Apartheid. With her
famous expression “go and see for yourself”, she purposefully went to see what
was happening, and she acted on what she saw - often with crucial implications
for people’s lives. In particular, she played an unparalleled role
in visiting prisons and improving conditions for political prisoners.
In Anthony Sampson’s Authorized Biography “Mandela...
‘It was an odd and wonderful sight’ he wrote, ‘to see this courageous woman
peering into our cells and strolling around our courtyard’. Suzman reported
back on the inhuman conditions...Soon afterwards...conditions began to
improve. The prisoners saw Suzman’s visit as a turning point: had she not
come, wrote Neville Alexander, ‘there is no saying what might have happened’”.
Her all-important visits to Robben Island, and the
improvements in the prisoners' lives that derived from them, were just the tip
of the iceberg. She visited the banned and the banished. She fought to
obtain amnesties and passports and exit visas for countless political (and non
political) prisoners. She pleaded for scores and scores of individuals who were
victims of the pass laws and group areas and racial classification. She took up
the causes of literally hundreds, if not thousands, of individuals. She used
her powers of persuasion and threats of exposure with ministers and officials
to obtain redress. Her desk was a veritable harvest of the seeds of
Apartheid and she worked tirelessly to try to help every one of those that
sought her assistance, black, white or coloured, rich or poor, famous or
For her work in opposing Apartheid she was vilified and
abused, in Parliament and out. Her phone was tapped, her letters opened; she
received abusive phone calls and death threats. Hers was a difficult and
immensely courageous stand.
Helen Suzman disagreed with the ANC about the use of
violence and about the advisability of sanctions against South Africa.
Like many other eminent liberals, she believed that economic development
combined with peaceful mass action and union activity would be the more
appropriate and effective means to hasten the demise of Apartheid.
In July 1989, Nelson Mandela wrote to Helen Suzman:
“the consistency with which you have defended the basic values of freedom of
the rule of law over the last three decades has earned you the admiration of
many South Africans. A wide gap still exists between the mass democratic movement
and your party with regard to the method of attaining those values. But your
commitment to a non-racial democracy in a united South Africa has won you many
friends in the extra-parliamentary movement”.
In the forward to her autobiography, Nelson Mandela
records Helen Suzman’s “magnificent battle against apartheid” and, as recently
as 2007, in a letter on her 90th birthday, he reiterated that her “role in the
struggle against apartheid and in the building of democracy was an
extraordinary one – one not easy to forget, and one that should never be
We should never forget her extraordinary public role, a
role which should be celebrated by everyone in our democracy.