Fear of being on the wrong side of history shows up again at celebrations around Helen Suzman’s centenary

One of the many features of SA today is a fascination with looking in the rear-view mirror, almost to the exclusion of the road ahead. But often, the view backwards is distorted.

Tuesday November 7 provided seminal centenary events from opposite ends of the ideological spectrum — the date of both the Bolshevik Revolution and the birth of liberal politician Helen Suzman.

Undoubtedly, the Russian Revolution had the greatest impact on world events — and a very distinct influence on SA. And while the Soviet Union is buried in the very “dustbin of history” revolutionary Leon Trotsky assigned to his movement’s enemies, its following wind still propels much of our current debate.

While there are calls to ban the old South African flag following its appearance – apparently much of it fake news – at the recent Black Monday protests against farm murders, there is no suggestion that the hammer and sickle of Soviet communism should not be displayed. But in sheer terms of mass murder, human misery and brutal enslavement, no single movement in quantitative terms can outdo the 75 years of communism.

David Satter, author of Age of Delirium: The Decline and Fall of the Soviet Union, recently provided a bloodied number, or series of them: “Twenty-million Soviet citizens were put to death by the regime or died as a direct result of its repressive policies … the victims include the 200,000 killed during the Red Terror (1918-22); 11-million dead from the famine and dekulakisation; 700,000 executed during the Great Terror (1937-38); 400,000 more executed between 1929 and 1953; 1.6-million dead during forced population transfers; and a minimum 2.7-million dead in the labour colonies and special settlements.’’

And if you add in the effects of Soviet-supported regimes in Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, North Korea, Cambodia and Vietnam, the figure multiplies to about 100-million dead.

Little wonder Satter concludes that this “makes communism the greatest catastrophe in human history”.

Unburdened by much doubt, the red flag was, rhetorically at least, unfurled on the eve of the Bolshevik centennial by two eminent leading members of the South African Communist Party. Blade Nzimande and Jeremy Cronin acknowledge “the terrible underside to the heroic advances” of Soviet communism, a masterful understatement given the figures cited above. In their view, without the “brutal forced march into modernity” the Soviets could not have won the Second World War; without Soviet support, Africa would not have been decolonised; and practical support for liberation movements — notably the ANC – would not have eventuated.

It is easy to pick holes in this argument: without US materiel, the Soviet army would not have been equipped and without the western colonialists giving up their empires, or indeed western financial pressure to end apartheid, it is not exactly clear how and when SA’s National Party regime would have given up the ghost. But the sheer self-confidence embedded in the Nzimande and Cronin article is of a piece with the thrust of the left view of history.

In SA, this has deep resonance, precisely because long before others, local communists were both antifascist and antiracist. This almost inoculated them from having to account for the sins committed in the movement’s name.

Likewise, to be seen as anticommunist runs the risk of being tarred with the brush of reaction, fascism and racism. Thus the DA and others found themselves on Black Monday in contortions of agony when they shared the farm murder protest with a couple of old white South African reactionaries.

But this fear of “being on the wrong side of history” has some form. In his magisterial book Postwar: A History of Europe Since 1945, Tony Judt captured it with great insight. “It was sometimes difficult to persuade liberal critics of communism to voice their opinions in public for fear of being tarred with the brush of reaction.”

He cites the example of communist apostate, the novelist Arthur Koestler. Addressing a rally of anticommunists in New York in 1948, Koestler said: “You can’t help people being right for the wrong reasons. The fear of finding oneself in bad company is not an expression of political purity; it is an expression of lack of self-confidence.”

Precisely this lack of self-confidence permeated aspects of the celebrations around the centenary of Suzman. Her foundation, which uses a hug between her and Nelson Mandela as its website screen shot — chose Kgalema Motlanthe of the ANC, who urges us to “hate capitalism”, as guest speaker. Even her party, the DA, felt it necessary to affirm Suzman’s immense contribution with approving quotes of a host of grandees drawn from the movement she opposed, the ANC.

Michael Cardo, a liberal MP in the DA fold, penned a handsome tribute to Suzman on these pages recently. At one level, it was eloquent and unremarkable. But on another, it contained a thinly veiled warning to his own side. He cites the ambivalence of the United Party, which Suzman eventually left; he criticises United Party leader Sir de Villiers Graaff for relying on opinion polls “to determine what voters wanted … he foreshadowed the contemporary obsession with focus groups as a guide to policy formulation”.

Cardo suggests Suzman’s success was achieved by being “clear, consistent and principled”. He notes with approval historian Hermann Giliomee’s words that one should not “bat on your opponent’s pitch”, but omits that he made this warning to the DA caucus itself.

Of course, for many of her years, Suzman led a parliamentary army of one. She was unburdened by compromise, tactics and coalition building. Today, the DA is one hundred times larger than it was then. But offering a compelling alternative, painted in your own colours, refreshing old principles fit for current purposes is the way to start winning an argument, an essential precondition to winning the vote.

Just one compelling difference that few here have alighted on: under its command economy, the Soviet Union tottered into bankruptcy, hastening its demise in 1991. SA, also with a state-led economy, is following a similar path.

Planned socialist alternatives to the market economy do not work. That simple but compelling message was conveyed in a recent analysis in the Financial Times by economist Sergei Guriev. He notes the essential difference: “In a socialist economy all inefficient enterprises are bailed out by the state — hence managers have no incentives to avoid bankruptcy…. If a capitalist firm goes bust, private shareholders lose their equity. If a socialist one cannot pay its debts, they are taken over by the state — and eventually the whole state goes bankrupt.”

Strangely enough, the one entity in SA alert to this danger is the Treasury. While being too timid to suggest radical policy change, in its fiscal risk statement, it pins a precise number on the state guarantees to state-owned and related enterprises: R445bn. It also points out the huge risk this poses to the sovereign balance sheet.

But there is a compelling political argument to make about the role of the market, the fact that you cannot be simultaneously progrowth and antibusiness, and that more people in history have been lifted out of poverty through free markets that are neither corrupted nor indifferent to human misery.

Suzman won fame as a fighter for human rights, but her training was as an economist. She would certainly approve of such an approach, and not mimic her opponents but tell them to get lost. Or something earthier.

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