We should learn the right lessons and draw the correct conclusions from the extraordinary and well-lived life of Helen Suzman.

Exactly 10 years ago, on 7 November 2007, I telephoned Helen Suzman in Johannesburg from Cambridge, Massachusetts, where I was a resident Fellow at its famous university. I called to congratulate her on her 90th birthday and apologise for my absence from the festivities she had organised that evening at the Wanderers Club. I mentioned, in passing, that it was ironic that her birthday coincided — 7 November 1917 — exactly with the Bolshevik Revolution — and that she had managed to outlive both Communism and apartheid.

Helen was gifted with a rapier-sharp wit, and retorted, “Indeed happy both didn’t outlast me, but I’m not so confident that I will outlive the current government in South Africa” (although the precise language she used was slightly earthier).

On the last observation, she was proven correct. Sections of South Africa today commemorate the 100th birthday of Suzman, the grande dame of both liberalism and parliamentary opposition. But it is worth noting how far South Africa has fallen — even in the eight years since her death in January 2009, just four months before the election of Jacob Zuma as president of South Africa.

On my last meeting with her in the year she died, she expressed the hope that she would live long enough to see what Zuma “would do” as president. Reading the best-seller “The President’s Keepers” by Jacques Pauw, which opens a sewer on the criminal enterprise over which Zuma presides, it is probably as well that she did not.

The outline facts of Suzman’s 36-year career as MP for Houghton are very well known, but no less worth commemorating for that fact: Notably she exemplified singular purpose in pursuit of principle in politics, careful research and facts above highfalutin’ rhetoric and philosophising, indefatigable energy and courage in going against the grain and the conventional wisdom of the day.

The context of those times — from 1953 to 1989 — from the apogee to the nadir of apartheid — did not require much more than an opposition mindset, given the appalling nature of the regime she opposed. And the long assault on civil liberties, which the official United Party opposition went along with and which alone she opposed from within parliament. But she also noted, in a foreword to a book of mine “Hope and Fear” that the post-apartheid landscape was more difficult to navigate.

Having commended me for “standing squarely in the great tradition of total opposition to racial discrimination” to which she dedicated her career, she noted that the current challenge (and this was in 1998) “was to honestly adapt core liberal values to the challenges posed by majority rule in a deeply divided, highly unequal society.”

The irony to Suzman’s memory lies in the person the Foundation has chosen to commemorate her: Kgalema Motlanthe, who at the time of Mbeki’s assault on Suzman and her successors, served as ANC Secretary General.

It is precisely this adaption with which the Democratic Alliance today wrestles. The party, on the one hand, has its KwaZulu-Natal leader dedicating the months of Suzman’s centenary to Oliver Tambo, and various more liberal members of the caucus virtue signal their core values by quoting Hermann Giliomee’s caution to the DA that the party should “not bat on their opponent’s pitch”.

Historian Niall Ferguson noted that it is the “God of irony who turns the wheel of history”. And it is in the ironies and subtleties of Suzman’s life and public career and example that an equally rich trove of observations about our country condition and its prospects can be observed.

First, since she shares her centenary with the famous Tambo, it is worth recalling a famous spat, brought back to life by Thabo Mbeki in January 2005. Mbeki from the height of his presidency and in order to expose the hypocrisy of the official opposition (then led by me) penned the following attack: he quoted Oliver Tambo in 1971: “Mrs Suzman deserves special mention. This sweet bird from the blood-stained South flew to Zambia and sang a singularly sweet song. I am opposed to apartheid. I am opposed to the isolation of South Africa. I am opposed to violence. I am clearly in favour of a change, but determined to prevent change.”

Mbeki took this further and adapted it to the Democratic Alliance with the observation: “With these words, Oliver Tambo exposed the great gulf between ourselves and others in the country who, like us said they were in opposed to apartheid and in favour of a change.”

As Suzman noted in a public speech later in 2005, “Mbeki went further and converted Tambo’s letter into a full-scale attack against the official opposition and people who, like me, object to policies which adversely affect our economy, encourage the emigration of skilled people, and discourage investment into job-producing projects which would reduce our appalling unemployment rate.”

Although extremely liberal on civil liberties, Suzman was more conservative on economics and had some mighty disagreements with one of her caucus colleagues — with whom she did not get on — Harry Schwarz, who was the opposite: a social democrat but a security hawk. And she certainly had no truck with race-based employment equity, onerous labour relations restrictive practices and other state-based throttles on enterprise and job creation.

This leads to another irony: the Helen Suzman Foundation — established to honour her political contribution — is tonight [Tuesday] hosting, quite appropriately, her centenary with a public lecture. But the irony to Suzman’s memory lies in the person the Foundation has chosen to commemorate her: Kgalema Motlanthe, who at the time of Mbeki’s assault on Suzman and her successors, served as ANC Secretary General.

For it was Mbeki who wrote of Suzman and the current DA, back in 2005 when Motlanthe served alongside him: “They (Suzman and the DA) fight as hard as they can to ensure that they rather than us should set (the) agenda. They fight to ensure the dominance of their ideas as to what constitutes change… and about the ways and means that should be used to bring about such change.. This is a struggle we must and will continue to take on, namely the political and ideological struggle to determine the dominant ideas for the transformation of our society.”

For Mbeki and Motlanthe the DA was the ideological, class and race enemy. Motlanthe in a similar vein at the same time offered the observation at a May Day rally when he urged “workers to intensely hate capitalism and to engage in the struggle against it”.

Of course, as I have observed elsewhere, compared to what was to follow, the Mbeki-Motlanthe era seems redolent of a golden age. But clearly, in the mid-2000s, there was a huge gulf between Suzman and the DA on the one side and the ANC on the other. Perhaps by choosing Motlanthe to commemorate Suzman it is a sign that the waters have closed; or that the ANC — for all its other failings — has succeeded in Mbeki’s words “to determine the dominant ideas for the transformation of society”.

But this then conjures yet another irony from Suzman’s political career. In 1970, she addressed an eve of election rally for her leader Colin Eglin in Sea Point, where he was hoping to win the seat and end her long isolation in the apartheid parliament. Suzman deeply opposed communism, but equally opposed banning the Communist Party. When asked this question and with certain qualifications, she told the audience that she supported the unbanning of the SA Communist Party.

As Eglin noted, his conservative opponent Jack Basson (father of the more famous Whitey) “plastered the constituency with posters stating the Progressive Party would unban the Communist Party”. Eglin did not share the view that this cost him the seat by just 232 votes, believing Suzman’s record contributed to his total. But it proves that she, protest politician par excellence, never felt the need to trim her sails to the gusts of political correctness — either under apartheid or afterwards.

But Suzman was an intensely human politician and not a saint: Van Zyl Slabbert — who completely shared her philosophy — was iced out of her circle for six years when he left parliament believing it could not bring the needed change to South Africa. I suffered a similar period of banishment in 1989 when I upset her plans to handpick her successor in parliament.

But when the DA held a farewell dinner for me in May 2007, she was the star of the gathering. Having warned me that being wheelchair-bound she would only stay “for half an hour” she left late in the evening. The circle had been squared.

We should learn the right lessons and draw the correct conclusions from the extraordinary and well-lived life of Helen Suzman.

  • Leon (@TonyLeonSA), a former leader of the opposition, now chairs Resolve Communications and is a senior adviser to K2 Intelligence of London
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