BOOK REVIEW / South Africa: memories in black and white: Mary Benson on memoirs by Helen Suzman and Rich Mkhondo

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The Independent Culture
HELEN Suzman and Rich Mkhondo write from different but deeply personal experiences of a violent, dislocated society. Helen Suzman's memoir, In No Uncertain Terms (Sinclair Stevenson, pounds 17.99) reveals a parliament remorselessly extending government and police repression; while Rich Mkhondo's Reporting South Africa (James Currey, pounds 9.95) looks into the effects of that repression as South Africa staggers agonisingly toward democracy.

It is refreshing to contemplate Suzman's political life, which was lit by an irrepressible sense of humour. From 1953 until her retirement in 1989, with guts and determination and unshakeable humanity, she used South Africa's parliament to expose the tragic effects of apartheid. Nelson Mandela and Breyten Breytenbach praised her work for prison reform; she also fought for women's rights.

For 13 years hers was the only liberal voice in parliament; alone she opposed act after act intensifying state violence; for six of those years, she was the sole woman among 165 MPs. She recollects how unnerving it was, when making a speech, to find 'several sets of beady eyes fixed on me with unremitting hostility', and mocks the bigots who threatened her. She confronted in turn Prime Ministers Verwoerd, Vorster and Botha, as nasty a trio as you could encounter. When Verwoerd, the only man who ever scared her stiff, said he had written her off, she retorted: 'And the whole world has written you off.'

Suzman's father Samuel Gavronsky was among the Jewish emigres who escaped pogroms in Russia to find new lives and prosperity in South Africa. Her mother Frieda died after her birth; not until she was 55 did she chance on a photograph of her, who appears poignantly lovely among the pictures illustrating the book.

Desperate individuals and communities found Suzman tirelessly accessible. Saul Mkhize, who was resisting his people's removal from land they had owned since 1912, visited her at home several times. 'He was a dignified man, very formal, always in his Sunday best and wearing a hat. I was devastated when I was phoned one morning and a voice said, 'They have shot Saul'. The policeman who killed Saul was charged with murder, but was acquitted.'

Suzman pays tribute to a network of remarkable, supportive women, but also men, including editors and foreign correspondents who gave her valuable coverage over the years.

On the sad occasion of her retirement, Suzman raised a laugh with a story about a recent dinner party: 'My host, trying to present me in a favourable light to his black waiter, said, 'Josiah, do you know this lady? She is Mrs Suzman. She spends all her time trying to help your people.' Josiah looked at me disdainfully and said, 'She waste her time'.'

Mkhondo, the first black journalist to write a political book, handles a wealth of material with lucidity. One invaluable section describes Nelson Mandela's role in initiating the negotiating process that eventually led to the historic talks at the World Trade Centre. In December 1991 Mkhondo, representing Reuters, was among the early arrivals, eager to participate in the first steps toward a new democratic South Africa. In June 1993, when neo-Nazis stormed the centre, he was one of the blacks assaulted while armed police stood passively by. Had the invaders been black, he points out, police would have opened fire; hundreds might have been killed.

Meanwhile, he travelled a country inured to violence - between 1984 and the writing of this book 12,000 lives were lost. In Katlehong, where he lives, hostel dwellers or squatters fight running battles with residents, while police add to the death count. 'As a journalist who was also a resident of one of the worst-affected areas, I was able to report and witness South Africa's time for weeping.' And you do weep, reading his notebooks on the slaughter of friends and neighbours.

If, he suggests, armed men were to wander in Johannesburg's white suburbs and slaughter white residents at random, security forces would storm the area and flush out the killers. Courts would quickly punish the guilty. After the killing of a lone white farmer by blacks, he witnessed the arrival of hundreds of police and soldiers, helicopters and dogs.

White extremists openly train for war and enjoy considerable support among the police and armed forces. Under government legislation, whites can own 27 guns each. However, through his interviews with white farmers, he came to understand their financial and political anxieties. His chapter 'Botchers, Butchers or Third Force?' provides chilling evidence of corruption and depravity at the highest level of the Defence Force. President de Klerk might have axed 23 senior officers, but generals heading Military Intelligence remain in office despite involvement in the assassination of activists, both black and white.

Each step forward in the negotiating process is accompanied by a horrifying spate of killings. In Thokoza Mkhondo struggles through a crowd surrounding burning bodies and breathes the smell of roasting flesh. A youth challenges him: 'Tell the world there is also a Sarajevo here]'

As Chief Buthelezi and his right- wing allies threaten civil war if the government and the ANC proceed with elections, Mkhondo swings from despair to a fragile optimism. The ANC, he writes, despite severe setbacks, has become stronger and more united. He sees election day, 27 April 1994, as 'a beacon of achievement' planted by all who struggled and sacrificed. 'Naturally,' he adds, 'I am excited that for the first time in my life, like 22 million other black voters . . . 1 will walk to a polling station and cast my vote.'

Helen Suzman also ends on a hopeful note: after referring to an Afrikaner Nationalist's remark that they had to try apartheid to show that it would not work, she declares: 'Whatever the obstacles we now have to try democracy to show that it will work.'

(Photograph omitted)