Charlotte's Web

Blogging my world since 2006

A Grand Old Lady


*Update! Hear a wonderful hour-long Woman’s Hour programme dedicated to Helen Suzman here. Not so unsung after all! (I have to admit I wept buckets. What a woman.)*

South Africa’s veteran parliamentarian, Helen Suzman, who was main voice of the opposition United Party (UP), and later the Progressive Federal Party (PFP), in the apartheid parliament for over thirty years, celebrates her 90th birthday today. Happy Birthday, Helen! You are an unsung South African hero.

Suzman served in parliament from 1953 to 1989 – an astonishing 37 years. From 1961 to 1974, she was the only member of the PFP in parliament. Her courage in doing so was immense. The Nationalist government was a group of highly conservative politicians desperate to prove that their hideous apartheid agenda was a moral and Christian stance, entirely necessary to protect the country from “terrorists” and “Communists”, when actually it was an excuse for them to plunder the country, oppress the majority of the population and engage in border wars with the country’s neighbours. Imagine their rage at having to face Helen Suzman, a liberal, and infinitely worse, a woman, who dared to stand up and tell them they were spouting immoral, cruel and dangerous babble. How she must have got up their noses!

In the online newspaper Suzman says

“In parliament they would hate my views but they could never deny them because I had been to prisons, I had been to resettlement areas, I had been to removal areas. So they could talk to me all about the wonderful new South Africa and I knew what apartheid was actually doing.”

Suzman also goes on to say that stories of white liberal resistance to apartheid are being left out of current retellings of the history of the anti-apartheid struggle. At the time white liberals had a choice, either to opt out of the system altogether since it senselessly only catered for a tiny minority and join the ANC to fight underground, or try to change things from within. Suzman took the latter route, and thank God she did. Had she not, there would not have been one single voice of reason in that vile parliament of fools, no-one speaking up day after day for year upon year against the madness they were perpetrating.

In the Seventies, my parents campaigned for Suzman’s party. It was the best they felt they could do. I remember asking my teacher in Standard One (third grade) who she was going to vote for in the upcoming election and her telling me that we didn’t talk politics at school. I was surprised, because in my home all talk was of the election and the campaign and our candidate, and I couldn’t understand that it could be a no-go area. Anyway, compared to people who left South Africa and joined the underground or fought in pockets of resistance inside the country, working for the PFP was not a huge sacrifice. But it was something, and they did it, and I’m proud of them for it.

What’s interesting is that all the PFP’s principles – freedom of speech, the rule of law, freedom of association, no illegal detention and banning – are espoused in South Africa’s constitution today. They are the principles of the ANC and the new opposition, the liberal Democratic Alliance, which happens also to headed by a woman – Helen Zille, who is the mayor of Cape Town. However back in the bad old days to even suggest that you supported freedom of speech made you a communist and a lefty and an all-round bad egg. These were things of which Helen Suzman was not scared of being accused. She had her principles and she made them abundantly clear.

Happy Birthday to the grand old lady of South African politics. You gave us hope in those dark days when we thought there was no hope at all.

Author: charlotteotter

Novelist, feminist, crime writer

6 thoughts on “A Grand Old Lady

  1. It’s scary to see a little bit of a parallel in what’s happening in the states today. Anyone who speaks against the current administration is labeled a liberal, who doesn’t support the troops. Completely unfounded and just plain silly.
    We need someone like Helen Suzman to say the emperor is wearing no clothes!

  2. Just change a few words: “The Bush government was a group of highly conservative politicians desperate to prove that their hideous neo-con capitalist agenda was a moral and Christian stance, entirely necessary to protect the country from “terrorists” and “illegal aliens”, when actually it was an excuse for them to plunder the country, oppress any dissent and engage in specious wars with sovereign nations.”

    Gah. Powermongering disguised as benevolent paternalism.

  3. Happy birthday to her too – I don’t know enough about South Africa’s history, not having grown up here, and everyone being busy looking forward these days, so it’s great to read and learn.

  4. Helen Suzman truly was one of the great unsung heroes of the struggle – happy birthday to her!

    It is a little scary, though, that parallels exist in South Africa today. The minute an opposition MP asked difficult questions in Parliament about our lovely Health Minister’s murky past, he was accused of conduct unbecoming and thrown out of the assembly! It’s very disturbing that a party that has the support of the overwhelming majority of the population and is, by all accounts, doing a very good job on many fronts, can’t take the slightest bit of criticism. Somebody should tell them they are in power, not fighting an unjust regime any more…

  5. I don’t know about unsung – feeling my age here, but I remember hearing lots and lots about her when I was younger (even in distant Cork) and she was the voice of the opposition. But you are right that without her, everyone would have thought it was a “vile parliament of fools” (nice turn of phrase that). Happy birthday to her, indeed.

  6. Pingback: RIP, Helen Suzman « Charlotte’s Web

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