BOOK REVIEW / A thorn in the bear-garden: 'In no Uncertain Terms' - Helen Suzman: Sinclair-Stevenson, 17.95 pounds

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The Independent Culture
TO BE a democrat in South Africa is difficult; to be a liberal is almost impossible. Helen Suzman is both. But how she did it remains a mystery, even as one closes these breakneck memoirs, which are scattered with tributes to family, friends and colleagues. An approbatory preface by Nelson Mandela and the congratulations of former political enemies cannot hide the fact that In No Uncertain Terms reveals very little of the woman herself.

But it doesn't much matter. For what comes across with striking force is the formidable political crusader who drove her enemies crazy and, clearly, often exasperated her own side. Helen Suzman possesses a genius for causing trouble, linked to a gift for getting things done. Either ability was a rarity in the dog-days of triumphant apartheid; to possess both made her unique.

Mrs Suzman was elected as the Member for Houghton, a wealthy Johannesburg constituency, in 1953, and took her seat as a member of the official opposition, the United Party. A few years later she helped to found the new, cautiously liberal Progressive Party and took her seat as its sole MP.

The South African parliament wasalways a bloody bear-garden, run by bullies and crooks who manipulated parliamentary proceedings for their own tribal ends. They wore the official opposition United Party as a fig- leaf to cover the immodesty of their claim to be a democratic forum run on Westminster lines.

For almost 40 years Helen Suzman gave them hell. For 13 of them she did so single-handedly, as the only 'Prog' in the House. She became the bear-baiter extraordinaire. Yet she began as an improbable bruiser. The granddaughter of Lithuanian immigrants, she cheerfully confesses that even her father disapproved of her liberalism. And he was not alone. Most white voters applauded the government's frequent calls for Mrs Suzman to 'go back to Ghana', or Russia, or Israel. Invitations to travel, being a customary form of abuse in South Africa, have nothing to do with broadening the mind. The Afrikaans press, she recalls, enjoyed depicting her as a Jewish harridan, 'hideous and hooknosed', who had stepped straight out of the pages of Der Sturmer.

As these memoirs show, Helen Suzman lapped it up and spat it out again. She returned insults with interest. She was very brave, unsentimental, highly organised and tough. In a rare compliment to one of her Nationalist opponents she concedes that he could be almost as nasty as she herself could be, when the need arose - and that, she notes in passing, could be very nasty indeed.

In the cruel fairground of Parliament Helen Suzman relished taking on the hucksters and the mountebanks selling snake oil called 'separate development' and 'parallel freedoms' and other proprietary brands of nationalist hogwash. But it was the coconut shies she made her own. Against the massed gallery of government members opposite who stamped, shook their heads, foamed and threatened, Suzman took aim with deadly accuracy: political prisoners, detention without trial, sex across the colour bar, police shootings, torture and solitary confinement. She notched up an astonishing tally of direct hits; almost every one a coconut.

As a memoir, In No Uncertain Terms rushes ahead. There is only one speed - fast; only one direction - forward. The writing, like the woman, is headlong. The reader is addressed like a constituency report-back meeting. Can't stop, must fly. Dragons to slay. Extracts of her speeches reproduced from Hansard are more lively than her prose. Yet, somehow, the flavour of those bloody, brutal times is vividly conveyed. Helen Suzman was so indefatigably there. Nosing down the solid blocks of parliamentary prose you bump up against all those exhibits from that chamber of horrors, the South African parliamentary assembly, those distorted blokes in bendy fairground mirrors.

There is Hendrik Verwoerd, apostle of apartheid and the only man, she says, who ever frightened her. There is Balthazar John Vorster, with the drooping jowls of a homicidal basset hound. And there is 'the old crocodile' himself, P W Botha, racing across the House on a hot September afternoon in 1966 having just witnessed a demented parliamentary messenger repeatedly plunge a knife in the body of Dr Verwoerd. Botha shouting at Suzman: 'It's you who did this. It's all you liberals.

You incite people. Now we will get you. We will get the lot of you.'

But they didn'tget her. It could be said that she 'got' them. They are all liberals now. Most remarkable of all, Helen Suzman was prepared to be disliked by her friends, supposed allies against apartheid. Radicals in the ANC attacked her. So did conservative supporters of the Inkatha Freedom Party. Her formerly liberal university refused to allow her to address an election rally. Ineffably ignorant demonstrators on American campuses harangued her with an ostentatious racism which would have made even a white South African blush.

These memoirs, then, do her less than justice. But she tells her story in her own businesslike fashion. It's hard to think of anyone better in the business - and that will do to be getting on with.