Helen Suzman: 'What was happening was so obviously evil, it made it straightforward to protest about it'

The great South African anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman died in Johannesburg on the first day of this year, at the age of 91. Suzman was a courageous freedom fighter during the ogre of the apartheid era in South Africa. She befriended Nelson Mandela whilst he was imprisoned and campaigned tirelessly and bravely on behalf of all the imprisoned ANC members. I had the pleasure of interviewing her in Johannesburg a few months before her death. This is the article I wrote...

Peter Bills
Wednesday 10 June 2009 11:44 BST

They could hardly have come from more different social backgrounds. She was the daughter of Lithuanian/Jewish immigrants to South Africa; he, the son of a chief by blood and custom of the Thembu tribe, part of the Xhosa nation.

He was born on 18 July 1918 at Mvezo, a small village on the banks of the Mbashe river, in the district of Umtata, the Transkei capital. The name his father, Gadla Henry Mphakanyiswa, gave him was 'Rolihlahla'.

Just eight months earlier, she was born Helen Gavronsky, on 17 November 1917, in Germiston, in the old Transvaal and educated at Parkton Convent. Their social status, not to say their lives, might as well have been Continents apart, such was the disparity in the circumstances confronting them.

Yet the fortunes of Nelson Mandela and Helen Suzman seem to have been inextricably woven together for so much of their lives. This slender, highly articulate lady who had married Dr. Moses Suzman when she was 20 and had two daughters, was elected to the South African Parliament in 1953 as a member of the United Party.

But it was chiefly after she had switched to the Progressive Party in 1959 and become the member for Houghton constituency, that her fate and his became intertwined. As the 1960s dawned and Mandela's incarceration as a member of the banned ANC became the conscience of a nation, her campaign for justice across the land, flourished. She, like him, became a household name; both championed by the free world for their intelligence, for their lucidity and willingness to sacrifice thoughts of self and personal safety to the cause of freedom.

As he languished in jail, caged by a series of white, apartheid regimes, she campaigned endlessly on behalf of him and his friends. When he was finally freed, she was soon at his side as South Africa officially buried a political system that had brought shame to its name around the world.

Even in old age, the similarities existed. When she celebrated her 90th birthday, he was just a matter of months short of that landmark. Perhaps, too, she was one of the very few people qualified to make this revealing, thought provoking statement about Nelson Mandela and his role within his nation's history.

"I think his departure from office, after he had served only one term as President, was a mistake" she told me. "He should have served at least two terms. He ought to have waited for the country to settle down completely before retiring because the country had done such an about turn after 40 years. It needed at least two terms from so sensible, stable a man; the right man for reconciliation.

"And Thabo Mbeki wasn't the right man to follow him..."

At 90, even Helen Suzman had to admit the years were starting to take their toll. Her eyesight was not so good and she listened to talking books, rather than reading them. Yet she still watched TV and played some bridge. "Actually, I wasn't a bad golf and tennis player in my day. But of course, that's long gone..."

But not the indomitable spirit of this lady. Fighting for justice defined her as a person; her name became synonymous with the battle for freedom in South Africa.

She believed she learned such values from the nuns who taught her in her formative years. "My father, who was a liberal and came to this country after the Boer War without a penny, was convinced private schools were better than public schools. He was a very clever, hard working man but he was wrong on that topic, of course. The nuns weren't really qualified teachers but they taught me good principles, good character-building stuff. Things like, you treated people with respect, irrespective of colour."

Did such deeply inculcated values direct her long fight for justice on behalf of Mandela and his colleagues in the ANC ? She smiled, as if a shade embarrassed. "Oh, that was just a normal reaction. I hate bullies and discrimination and ever being treated badly. What was happening was so obviously evil, it made it straightforward to protest about it."

She believed she was lucky to serve her Parliamentary term under the Westminster system of Government which meant the role of the opposition was accepted. She also believed the fact that Parliament had good Speakers at that time, even one of them who was a Founder of the Broederbond, Hennie Klopper, helped her.

"He would say 'I don't agree with a word you say, but it's your right to say it'. So I got 40 minutes in every debate. I was allowed to ask many questions and that was very valuable for publicity."

Her own memories were likewise inextricably linked to Mandela and his life experiences. She remembered visiting him in a little cottage at Victor Verster prison, where a white warder guarded him. "The warder brought lunch in for the two of us: I don't think he (Mandela) missed the symbolism of the situation" she said.

"I struggled to get permission to visit him for the first time after his trial. There had been so many reports of ill treatment to the political prisoners. I saw the Minister and he told me such reports were all nonsense. I said 'You won't be believed until someone visits them' and so I was given permission.

"It was a very emotional meeting, that first one. He was in the single cell section and I walked in to see this tall, imposing man. He told me everything; about the icy winters, the inadequate food, the clothes not being warm enough and how he didn't have enough visits. He was guarded by a warder with a swastika tattooed on his hand."

And what of her own role in what Mandela called his "Long Walk to Freedom"?

"I did the best I could to get him out but it took a number of years. I suppose you could say I was shocked at what was going on and I did my best to shock other people. But others helped a lot too, like the Unisa organisation which supplied the prisoners with books and exam papers. That saved their sanity and gave them an education."

What did South Africa lose by incarcerating Mandela for 27 years? Helen Suzman greeted that question with a steely glare. "We lost 27 years of having a remarkable man at the helm" she said emphatically.

"It wouldn't have been terribly different if he had been released earlier. He would have been more restrained in the manner in which the ANC acted. Someone else who could have been a great asset to this country was Steve Biko who was murdered in detention. I was due to meet him but he was arrested a few days before the time scheduled. So I never in fact met him.

"Luthuli House now runs Parliament; Parliament is a farce, with no accountability. That's not good for the country and I am very unhappy about the way Zuma is running through Luthuli House and how feeble Parliament is."

Suzman, like British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, was against trade sanctions because, she felt, they risked increasing unemployment, especially in the mines and in agriculture. But international banks refusing South Africa credit did help. She admitted she was wrong in believing that contact with world sports teams would be more effective than a boycott. "But in the end, the real reason apartheid was abolished was that it just could not be implemented. There weren't enough whites to do the jobs and the Trade Union rights given to black people at the end of the '70s, meant the situation had to change."

Suzman's views on the modern world and how South Africa was trying to take its place on the world stage, not to mention the rights and wrongs of more than 40 years of repression, were both pertinent and thought provoking.

"I am in despair looking around the world at the moment" she told me. "You see what appear to be insoluble problems wherever you look: Afghanistan, Iraq, Iran, Burma, the US, plus things like global warming. There seem to be so many disasters: cyclones in Burma, earthquakes in China. And there is no back up plan, it seems. Things look so difficult in African countries like Kenya, Zimbabwe, too. Then you have the recession in America."

Was she fearful for South Africa's future? "I don't know; I hope very much things won't get worse. But we are part of Africa.

"It's not a case of western values against African culture. True, our economy is not bad but overall it doesn't look very healthy at the moment.

"Mbeki can take credit for the economic policy but the other things are of concern; crime, AIDS, unemployment. Then you have inflation and the price of foodstuffs which have shot up alarmingly. That will just breed more crime. Already, there is an abysmal situation in the shanty towns.

"Mbeki has made so many mistakes. His silence on Mugabe's attack on human rights was ridiculous. And South Africa has paid a price for that policy with 3 million illegal immigrants from Zimbabwe coming over our borders. Those numbers of immigrants have taken away jobs and housing and extended crime. People start with petty crime and then join the gangs."

She also highlighted the loss of so many skilled white workers to countries such as Australia and England. "Of course, there had to be some redress in favour of the previously disadvantaged people. I agreed with that, but not kicking out your experienced people and the civil service.

"Not having sufficient people to replace them meant they should have held onto them. No-one was ready to take their places."

And whom, we might wonder, will take the place and offer the values of the feisty, fascinating Helen Suzman?

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in