How We Met: Helen Suzman and Sue MacGregor

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The Independent Culture
Helen Suzman, 76, was an MP in South Africa from 1953 until 1989, speaking out for human rights. For 13 years the only Progressive Party MP, she is now on the Independent Electoral Commission. She was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Married to a doctor, she has two daughters.

The broadcaster Sue MacGregor, 52, was born in Oxford and educated mainly in South Africa. She presented Woman's Hour for 15 years. As well as presenting Today, she has her own Radio 4 series, Conversation Piece, starting again next Sunday. She was awarded the OBE in 1991.

SUE MacGREGOR: Neither of us can remember when or where we met. We just always seem to have known each other. In the Fifties, when I was at school in Cape Town, I knew of Helen through the press. There were very few women in parliament, and Helen Suzman was an opposition MP, which seemed to me a very good thing to be. Socially, I probably met her in Cape Town with her daughter, Francie, or with her niece, Janet Suzman. Francie and Janet now live in London and we're all part of the South African Mafia - I call it the Safia - who tend to see quite a lot of each other.

Helen is tremendously loyal to her friends. Each time she comes to London, despite her meetings, speaking engagements and endless honorary degree awards, she manages to find time to pick up the phone and say, 'Any chance of dinner or a drink?'

Helen also phones my parents whenever she's been to London. It's just one of her many acts of kindness. My parents were thrilled the first time she telephoned - possibly more thrilled about speaking to Helen Suzman than hearing about me]

Before I came to London I worked for the state-run South African Broadcasting Corporation, where I would never have had the opportunity to interview Helen. As far as they were concerned, she was a non-person.

I once mentioned to her that I was getting obscene phone calls. She said, 'I've been getting abusive phone calls all my life. Just keep a whistle handy, and the next time it happens, blow down the phone.' I've no doubt that for years Helen had her phone tapped and her mail opened.

Working as a reporter on the BBC's World at One, The World This Weekend and PM, I came to know Helen professionally - I often interviewed her. For the 40th anniversary of Woman's Hour, I went back to make a special programme, talking to three prominent South African women. They were Helen Suzman, Winnie Mandela and the MP Rina Venter. It was a few weeks after Winnie had issued her notorious and very controversial 'with our matches and our necklaces we will liberate this country' speech. She was very wary of the press, and without Helen I couldn't have got an interview with her.

For so many of us Helen Suzman was a major force in our political consciousness. She has always been a woman way ahead of her time, and I have enormous admiration for her, particularly when I think how lonely and difficult it must have been during the 13 years from 1961 to 1974, when she was the sole representative in parliament of the Progressive Party. She took up literally thousands of cases, demanding to know why people didn't have passes, why they were detained without trial. She was reviled by the white right, grudgingly respected by liberals and disliked by the United Party, which she had just left. A lesser person would have crumbled, but she's very tough, a survivor. Helen Suzman has never been a sentimental, bleeding-heart kind of politician.

Helen is in no way a one-dimensional character. She can be wonderfully funny, and I've seen her mimic every one of the antediluvian politicians in the South African parliament. She has a razor-sharp tongue and is capable of the most effective verbal demolition. It is extraordinary to think that she must be 76. I've never been conscious of an age difference between us. She's always immaculately dressed and looks marvellous. She must have been beautiful when she was younger but I think she's probably even more beautiful now. She thrives on working incredibly hard. Helen has an inner stillness which is enviable.

I think that one of the reasons why we've always got on well is that we have a similar sense of humour. A long time ago, I had an operation, and because I'd had stitches the doctors told me not to laugh. Helen had no idea about this and came to visit me bearing a copy of J P Donleavy's The Beastly Beatitudes of Balthazar B, which she knew I would enjoy.

I would say that there is nobody in South African politics to rival Helen. Nobody with her charisma. Not even Nelson Mandela. When I first arrived in London, Helen Suzman was one of the few reasons not to be embarrassed about coming from South Africa.

HELEN SUZMAN: Anybody would be glad to have Sue as a friend. She's responsive, sympathetic and has a genuine warmth. Whenever I come to London, she's one of the people I most look forward to seeing. We rarely manage to get together more than three or four times a year, so we just have to pick up where we left off.

South Africa is full of parents whose children have left and made a life for themselves somewhere else. Both Sue and her sister are in London, and I know how difficult it is when parents are far away, although compared with what it was like a generation ago, a 12-hour flight isn't that bad.

Sue's hours are so bizarre - they seem to get worse each time we meet. Apart from her radio work, she's in great demand and has all sorts of arrangements, so it's never easy to find a time when we're both free. Sometimes we get together at my daughter's house. If my niece Janet's in London we'll try and get everyone together. We have friends in common, and all of us make a special effort to see each other. I usually have dinner or at least a drink with Sue.

When you work under the kind

of pressure that Sue does, it's essential to see the ridiculous side of things. In that respect we share a similar sense of humour. We tend to laugh a great deal.

Obviously, over the years, both here and in America, I've come to know a few journalists better than others. I've done several interviews with Sue either face to face or on the telephone. I usually get on well with journalists and certainly Sue is one of the most professional and is extremely knowledgeable about South Africa. I've never known her to be sentimental, which isn't to say that she's unemotional.

Sue's a political animal who retains a deep interest in South African affairs. She's seen the evolution of my career from the early days right through to the culmination. So much of what I advocated, received with such derision and condemnation, is now accepted policy.

I'm very glad Sue has done so well. She came to London on her own and has made a highly successful career without being pushed by anyone. She's a fine example of a woman who has achieved so much in a highly competitive field, where, it seems to me, in order to be considered equal you actually have to work harder and do better than the men. Sue is only one of so many talented people who have left South Africa, and each of them is a loss to the country. She is very modest about her achievements. If you didn't know she'd been awarded the OBE, she'd be the last one to tell you.

When Sue told me she was coming to South Africa to do a special radio programme, featuring interviews with three political South African women, I felt that it was important that Winnie Mandela should take part. Sue is probably the only person for whom I would have asked that particular favour from Winnie. Not surprisingly, when Sue recorded the interview with me, she asked me a lot of questions about my friendship with Winnie. These days, it's hard to find anyone who has a good word to say about her. I believe she's a victim of the system.

In London last year, as part of the launch of my memoirs, my publishers asked me to do an evening with Sue at the National Theatre. I knew we'd both be so busy there wouldn't be time to discuss it beforehand. It didn't worry me. If anyone knows the most important questions to ask, Sue MacGregor does. -

(Photograph omitted)

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