A lone voice of protest

2007-11-14 00:00

Helen Suzman, who turned 90 last week, has been widely honoured at home and internationally for her long and heroic fight against the injustices of apartheid and as a champion of human rights. Her courage, endurance and feisty spirit have made her a national icon.

All this was recognised at a birthday party at the Wanderers Club last Thursday evening, which saw scores of her old colleagues and admirers - as well as a few former opponents - gather to raise their glasses to this grand old lady of South African politics. It was a warm and delightful occasion. It was also a little sad; something of a geriatric reunion, a gathering of yesterday's people, the white liberals of the sixties and seventies who broke away from the United Party to form the Progressive Party and then the Progressive Reform Party, to wage a lonely rearguard action against the apartheid regime during its darkest and most repressive years, who have now all grown a little old and a little changed, and some of whom had difficulty recognising one another - and whose role, in Helen Suzman's own words, has been largely air-brushed out of history by the triumphalist authors of our liberation story.

Perhaps this was inevitable, for the white liberals were not the victors of the liberation struggle, and it is the victors who rewrite history. But I would argue that without the white liberal dissenters that victory might not have been possible, at least not in the relatively bloodless form that it took. Suzman herself is remembered for her feisty spirit and her passionate commitment to exposing acts of injustice - detention without trial, the torture of detainees, conditions in the country's prisons, the forced removals, life in apartheid's appalling dumping grounds, the pass laws and influx control regulations.

She was not herself a strategic planner of the white liberals' campaign of action. She was not an analytical politician. Strategy and tactics were not her thing. She was essentially an issues person, driven by a passion to expose acts of injustice and oppose repressive legislation. She was also an action lady, always there at the scene of the action to see for herself, and, like Nelson Mandela, a master of the symbolic gesture. Nevertheless, the role she played, especially during the 13 years from 1961 until 1974 when hers was the solitary voice emphatically opposed to apartheid - the United Party was still advocating “white leadership with justice”, an oxymoron if ever there was one - was ultimately to be of great strategic significance.

For that solitary, insistent voice of protest prevented white South African opinion from congealing into a consensus of support for the apartheid regime, as happened in Ian Smith's Rhodesia. She kept the spirit of dissent alive during the “silent sixties” when the ANC, the PAC and all their allies were banned, exiled, imprisoned and gagged. It would have been easy then for the voices of dissent to dwindle and die under the pressure of what the Nationalist propaganda machine was presenting as a fight for survival against the “communist-terrorist” ANC. She was not the only one, of course. There were a number of dissenting voices and activists in civil society, such as the Black Sash, the churches, the National Union of South African Students and the English-language press, especially the Rand Daily Mail, who were also able to expose the injustices and together form a chorus of protest.

But Helen Suzman was the solitary voice in Parliament, inside the national legislature where she was able to use her special privileges to question and challenge and oppose from the most powerful public platform in the land. A platform from which she could confront the beast face-to-face. She became the symbol and the centrepiece of political dissent - for blacks as well as white liberals, for black voices were silenced at that time.

That led to an interaction between Suzman in the legislature and the other civil society bodies outside. She would take up issues and they would amplify them, and vice versa. That is what kept the voice of dissent alive, even during the darkest days.

And ultimately it was to spread. The trenchant criticisms of apartheid injected into the public debate over many years, the policy's moral corruption as well as its impracticality as a way of securing a white nation-state by way of ethnic partition, gradually filtered through the more verligte ranks of Afrikaner nationalism into the very core of the ruling elite. That is what ultimately made the negotiated transition possible. Sure, there were the great struggle heroes, the prisoners and the exiles who endured great hardship, torture and even death, the brave young activists who confronted the police Hippos and Ratels and made the townships ungovernable. Their actions, and the television coverage of their clashes with the police which provoked international outrage which in turn produced economic sanctions, all contributed to the pressures for change.

But without that crack in the white regime's determination to hold on to power, without the seeds of doubt that the dissenters had planted in the minds of the ruling elite and which had slowly begun to germinate there, the white military state could have held out for many more years - and the eventual change, when it came, would have been much bloodier and more destructive. That is the true role that Helen Suzman and the white liberals who campaigned with her played in the story of our transition.

It riles me today to hear so many members of our new ruling class - usually people who were themselves far from the scene of the action - belittle and even denigrate that role. People who contend that the white liberals were as much beneficiaries of apartheid as the Nationalists themselves, who even suggest that Suzman and her ilk were as much part of the oppressive system as Hendrik Verwoerd and John Vorster and P. W. Botha because they served in the institutions of the apartheid state. This is semantic nonsense. There were millions of black people who served in the institutions and structures of the apartheid state as well, some willingly and with a special enthusiasm to compensate for their repressed sense of guilt. In fact the whole population did so, for that was the nature of the state in which we all lived and had to function. The acid test was what you did within it.

For my money the white dissenters, whether they were liberals or communists or somewhere in between, constituted a remarkable group of people who over many years played a major role in our political history that deserves much greater recognition than it is being given. After all, it is one thing for an individual to stand up and fight for the liberation of his own people. It is quite another, requiring a special kind of courage and moral commitment, to do that for people other than your own.

• Allister Sparks, a former editor of the Rand Daily Mail, is a veteran South African journalist and political commentator.

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