Peter Hain: Suzman, Mandela's brave champion – and stern critic

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It was Helen Suzman at her very best: simply indomitable, as she helped stop a miracle turning into a disaster. April 27 1994, South Africa's first democratic general election, and people queuing from dawn in their millions to vote for the first time in their lives. Hardly believable, the horror of apartheid was being exorcised in front of our eyes.

But then trauma: visiting polling stations in Soweto as a parliamentary observer, I saw that, such was the huge turnout, officials were running out of essential materials: purple dye for fingerprints, notebooks, marker pens and so on.

Maybe the election would have to be aborted. After Nelson Mandela's imprisonment and release, after all the carnage, the oppression and the liberation, could it all founder on this? Then I bumped into Helen Suzman, also on observer duties. "We cannot let this happen, Peter," she trumpeted. Off she went to scour shops for the missing items, returning, arms full, bustling around as she distributed her wares.

From 1961 to 1974 Suzman, who died on New Year's Day, was the only MP representing the Progressive Party, and was described even by opponents as "a cricket in the thorn tree". Outspokenly critical of the apartheid government, she used her position to cause discomfort and expose abuse.

Surrounded by enemies in Parliament, she said it was "considerably unnerving to turn around and find myself confronted with several sets of beady eyes fixed on me with unblinking hostility". Nevertheless, after hearing stories of the wretched conditions on Robben Island in 1966, she insisted on visiting Mandela's cell, where he told her about the poor food and clothing, the lack of newspapers and books, and about a brutal warder with a swastika tattoo, while the prisoner commander and the Commissioner of Prisons listened. She reported back, and soon afterwards improvements began.

Suzman visited Mandela in prison seven more times, having lively political arguments, and they could never agree. In 1969 she asked Mandela to say that he would abandon violence and, when he would not, she refused to ask for his release. But the prisoners were always grateful for her practical help. And that, in a way, summed up her contribution. Never really on the side of Mandela and his people's struggle for liberation, her party believed in a qualified franchise that would have still have left 90 per cent of blacks voteless.

In 1970, at the height of the campaign to stop the all-white South African cricket tour to Britain, she appeared on the BBC to condemn the campaign which I then led. Yet in a television confrontation between us, and looking rather uncomfortable, she had to concede that she could not speak for black South Africans such as Mandela who enthusiastically backed our campaign. At the time, she spoke out against all sanctions without acknowledging that South African law made it impossible for her to do anything else. Yet, during the long years when the ANC was banned and its leaders imprisoned, when the non-racial South African Liberal Party of my parents had been required to disband, and when all other organised resistance had been forcibly shut down, Helen was a lone voice for decency.

Change in South Africa was ultimately brought about by a spectrum of forces from the revolutionary to the magnificent moderate that was Helen Suzman, both heroic and frustrating – sometimes simultaneously.

Peter Hain is MP for Neath; his biography of Nelson Mandela is published by Octopus later this year

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