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Saturday, January 03, 2009

Helen Suzman

Article from: The Australian

THE most celebrated white champion of the anti-apartheid movement, Helen Suzman was the South African MP who for 36 years consistently denounced the iniquities of racial segregation. Often, she was the sole politician in South Africa's parliament to campaign vociferously against apartheid. For six years, she was also the only woman among 165 MPs, enduring the contempt of male parliamentarians who viewed white supremacy as a birthright, and to whom liberal was a dirty word.

Undeterred, Suzman used her privileges as an MP to gain access to areas forbidden to the general public: prisons, black townships and "resettlement areas" in the tribal homelands. At every step she highlighted the evils of the system.

She began her parliamentary career as a United Party MP in 1953, but left in 1959 to co-found the Progressive Party after the United Party split on the question of allocation of land to blacks. For 13 years she was the party's only representative in parliament. But she persevered, using the paradoxical circumstance of the authoritarian government's respect for the parliamentary system to challenge it and its policies at every turn.

Her most relentless campaign was against the notorious pass laws, which restricted the movement of blacks and prevented them from selling their labour in the open market. The repeal of these odious laws towards the end of the life of apartheid government in South Africa owed much to her obduracy.

Slight of build though she was, Suzman had great reserves of courage and stamina. She used question time to good effect, drawing attention to abuses in the police force and other departments of state and ensuring that these gained the widest publicity.

Suzman was born in Germiston, a small mining town outside Johannesburg, on November 7, 1917. She was the daughter of Samuel Gavronsky, a Jewish immigrant who had come to the Transvaal from Lithuania. She was educated at Parktown Convent in Johannesburg and at the University of the Witwatersrand, where she read commerce and economics. She married in 1937 before graduating, and dropped out to give birth to her first child. She returned to her studies and completed her degree with first-class honours.

After World War II. Suzman taught economic history at Witwatersrand for eight years before going into politics. She entered parliament representing the Houghton constituency of Johannesburg in 1953. At that time D.F. Malan's Nationalists had completed five years in office and were enforcing the first apartheid legislation. Elected as a member of the party of Jan Smuts, Suzman was one of a group of liberal-minded MPs who broke away to form the Progressive Party in 1959. In the general election of 1961 this new party was all but wiped out at the polls: Suzman was the only survivor, as she was at the elections of 1966 and 1970.

In the 1960s, with the Vorster government introducing the first legislation providing for detention without trial, hers was frequently the only dissenting voice on the Opposition benches. It was this legislation, later supplemented by the Terrorism Act and consolidated in the Internal Security Act, that gave the state powers to hold detainees incommunicado and in solitary confinement. It also gave rise to abuses such as torture during interrogation and a spate of deaths in detention.

Suzman was witty and irrepressible in debate, a master of the pungent aside and cutting rejoinder. She often faced roars of disapproval from the government benches as she argued the case against the Nationalist government's ideological legislation. In the '60s, she frequently had to stand her ground in debate amid intense anger and abuse. The three successive prime ministers whom she confronted over a period of 25 years, Hendrik Verwoerd, John Vorster and P.W. Botha, she subsequently described as "as nasty a trio as you could encounter in your worst nightmares". She later admitted that Verwoerd was "the only man who has ever scared me stiff". Yet she stood up to him in the house, notably on one occasion in 1961 when he was at his most aggressive and sarcastic, telling her that "the country has written you off". Suzman replied, "The world has written you off."

Her spell as the only Progressive MP came to an end in 1974 when the party won five more seats. Indeed, as the United Party continued to lose ground at the polls, the Progressive Party gradually became the official Opposition, and Suzman's onslaughts on apartheid gained welcome reinforcement.

From the outset Suzman had taken a special interest in conditions in South African prisons. She visited Nelson Mandela on Robben Island in the early '60s, continuing to do so in later years. She was one of the first MPs to visit the squatter camps such as Crossroads and bring them to the attention of parliament. In latter years she paid particular attention to what she believed were deteriorating standards in the South African judicial system and, in particular, the recurring cases in which whites who beat blacks to death in the most brutal fashion were given scandalously light sentences.

In 1989 she introduced the first censure motion before parliament on a judge, J.J. Strydom, who had given a five-year suspended jail sentence, and a fine equivalent to several hundred dollars, to a farmer, Jacobus Vorster, who had beaten a black labourer to death. Vorster was also to pay a small stipend to the widow and five children of the victim for the next five years.

It goes without saying that Suzman's censure motion was thrown out. Yet, South Africa was on the verge of change. Botha had given up the leadership of his party in February 1989, though still retaining the state presidency. His successor, education minister F.W. de Klerk, though not previously noted as a reformer, was soon calling for a non-racist South Africa and for full-scale negotiations about the country's future.

But 1989 was also the year in which Suzman decided to retire from politics. At 70 she felt that much of what she had striven for was about to be achieved. In South Africa she then watched from the sidelines the events leading to the release of Mandela and the transition to majority rule with a mixture of apprehension and hope. Her autobiography, In No Uncertain Terms, was published in 1993. She was appointed to the Order of Merit of South Africa in 1997 and the Helen Suzman Foundation, an independent think-tank dedicated to the promotion of liberal values, was founded in her honour.

Suzman's husband, M.M. Suzman, died in 1994. She is survived by their two daughters.

The Times

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