Helen Suzman's zest for life

Jamaica Gleaner

January 18, 2009

"Eat your greens!" Helen Suzman would tell me in no uncertain terms at the dinner parties she would host in her pleasant home, Blue Haze, in the heart of Johannesburg's leafy Northern suburbs, as I skipped the cooked vegetables that were such a staple (together with the roast beef) of her household.

Harry Oppenheimer was a regular, as were journalists like Richard Steyn and Peter Sullivan of The Star, academics like Ann Bernstein, and many of South Africa's leading personalities. With her departure, South Africa has lost one of her bravest daughters and most feisty anti-apartheid champions. We are all poorer for it.

My sorrow is tempered by my having had a chance to see her in early November, in what I didn't know would be our farewell. On a visit to Johannesburg, she invited me for drinks. Though less mobile than in her prime (only 10 years ago, she would drive by herself 60km from Johannesburg to Pretoria to attend our embassy functions, including a lunch party for her 80th birthday), she was still regally presiding in her vast study, surrounded by her books and family photos, the framed certificate of her appointment as Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth, never too far away from the bottle of Scotch she would entertain her visitors with (wine was never her forte) and, at 91, still active. The day before Nelson Mandela and Graca Machel had come calling with a present for her birthday, she beamed.

She told me about the various board meetings she had been attending, how she had dismissed her daughter's suggestion to get a new car, and put up an electric generator at her home instead, thus being protected from South Africa's now frequent power-shedding, and how concerned she was about South Africa's prospects under a Jacob Zuma presidency.

White supremacy rule

In contrast to Mandela, who was always very fond of her (and whom she visited on several occasions in his cell in Robben Island ("the first and only woman to grace our cells", as Madiba put it) many on the radical left were critical though, curiously, not Winnie Mandela, a good friend. This, on account of her liberalism and the fact that her often single-handed parliamentary opposition to Nationalist rule (for 13 of the 36 years she served in Parliament representing Houghton, Johannesburg's silk-stocking district, she was the only member of Parliament (MP) for the liberal Progressive Party in the South African Parliament) did not succeed in substantially altering harsh, white supremacy rule.

What brought apartheid to an end was a combination of black resistance, the international economic embargo (which Suzman opposed) and the fall of the Berlin Wall, which made nationalist paranoia with communism's alleged 'total onslaught' obsolete. Yet, Suzman not only kept up the flame of hope, but helped in many ways, big and small, to make things a little bit better.

Making the most of the Westminster system in which parliamentary privileges are sacred, she became a thorn in the flesh of successive prime ministers, from Hendrik Verwoerd to John Vorster and P.W. Botha, to whom she gave as good as she got. As an MP, she had access to prisons, ministries and government agencies, and used this to the hilt. She also did so with Question Time in Parliament, exposing many a minister through her lacerating wit and extraordinary way with words ("it is not my questions that embarrass South Africa; it is your answers") in the 200 questions or so she would pose every year in Cape Town's parliamentary sessions.

During my years in South Africa in the '90s, many an Afican National Congress (ANC) MP whom I pressed about the country's parliamentary tradition tended to dismiss it. Yet, Suzman's life and trajectory are in many ways a homage to the virtues of parliamentary democracy even under restricted conditions - on how one petite, Jewish lady ("Go back to Israel!", "Go back to Lithuania!" her fellow parliamentarians would shout at her, in reference to her ancestors, part of the 40,000 or so Jews, mostly from Lithuania, who migrated to South Africa at the turn of the last century) could face down such rough-hewn autocrats as P.W. Botha (the 'Groot Krokodil'), who made the country tremble, but to whom she once responded in Parliament, "I am not frightened of you - I never have, and I never will. I think nothing of you."

Over-the-top attack

On a visit to South Africa in 2000, she kindly invited me and my wife to join her for a few days in her summer place in Plattenberg Bay, on South Africa's Garden Route. During long walks on the beach we talked about the new South Africa. While critical of many aspects of it - she resigned from the Human Rights Commission in 1997, after what she considered an over-the-top attack of the latter on the South African media under apartheid - I was struck by her equanimity and peace of mind. Though apprehensive about some aspects of how her beloved Parliament was being run, she did not reflect the high-strung anxiety and nervousness of many white liberals about the course of South Africa under black majority rule.

Nor did she show any sense of frustration at having been in opposition for four decades, and not being 'part of the action' in government once her beloved country had made the transition to a non-exclusionary democracy. To the contrary, after an extremely active life - a hockey player at the convent school she attended (where one Sister Columba instilled in her that sense of duty that never left her), and an enthusiastic golf and bridge player thereafter - she was very much at peace with herself.

In this rocky new century, the world could do with many more Helen Suzmans.

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