Book review – The political awakening of Helen Suzman

2014-02-02 14:00

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Sabelo Ndlangisa puts the heroine of Robin Renwick’s biography under the microscope

For a long time, Helen Suzman fought a lonely battle against apartheid injustices in the parliamentary benches – even though the late stalwart of South African liberalism won the hearts of many across the political divide for her relentless efforts to fight for justice for the oppressed from inside the belly of the apartheid beast.

But a lot of people, especially from the political left, have raised questions about the legacy of Suzman, a descendant of Lithuanian Jewish migrants. Some suggest that her 35-year presence in Parliament lent a cloak of legitimacy to a de facto dictatorship that brought untold hardships to millions of black South Africans. They are sceptical of the role of liberals generally in bringing about political change, currently and in the past.

Robin Renwick, Britain’s former ambassador to South Africa and a British peer, has weighed in on the debate by penning Suzman’s latest biography, Bright Star in a Dark Chamber.

The book takes its title from a letter ANC leader and Nobel peace laureate Albert Luthuli wrote to thank Suzman for opposing the repressive rafts of legislation the Nats pushed through Parliament in the days when the party was still laying the building blocks for grand apartheid: “Forever remember you are a bright Star in (a) dark Chamber, where lights of liberty of what is left, are going out one by one.”

The book appears at a time when Suzman’s ideological equivalents in the DA have been deliberately enlisting her contribution to lay claim to the fight against apartheid.

Meeting Lord Renwick at a posh Sandton hotel, he tells me he decided to write the biography of his old friend after a conversation with her family a year ago.

“To my surprise they said nobody was working on [a biography]. The last one was about 40 years ago. She’s a great figure in SA history. Although the older generation remember her, and remember her with great respect, there’s a whole raft of younger South Africans who don’t know very much about her.

“What I am trying to do is to write a book which is easily readable, not too long. To remind people what this lady did and why she was so revered by a whole generation of Robben Islanders,” Renwick says.

With only 148 pages, the book is indeed fairly thin for a biography of a major political figure. However, the amount of detail the author has put in about the work and life of his subject makes up for its size.

Renwick makes brilliant use of vignettes and anecdotes to paint a picture of Suzman as a no-nonsense, hard-working politician who sometimes used her charm and political skills to secure concessions. She was not shy of unleashing her caustic wit on detractors when the occasion demanded.

When a minister accused Suzman of embarrassing the government in response to one of the 200-odd parliamentary questions she fielded per year, she retorted: “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa, it is your answers.”

In the same vein, she suggested that then prime minister John Vorster should visit the townships “disguised as a human being” when he stated that he saw nothing wrong with apartheid.

Author Robin Renwick paints a picture of the late apartheid government opposition leader as a no-nonsense and hard-working politician. Picture: Leon Sadiki/City Press

“This book is also a short history of apartheid because she was there at the beginning. She fought against every single one of these laws when they were introduced. She was the only member of Parliament who opposed the banning of the ANC and the PAC. She said if you forced people underground, it would be much worse from every point of view,” says Renwick.

But why did the Houghton MP look beyond her northern Johannesburg constituency and take the trouble of fighting for better conditions for political prisoners when most of her fellow liberals were prepared to turn a blind eye? The book attributes her political awakening to her realisation of the impact of pass laws on the movement of black people.

Suzman has often been criticised by her detractors for her opposition to economic sanctions. She opposed divestment on the grounds that it would hurt the poor more.

Bernard Magubane, the late academic and anti-apartheid activist, wrote in his memoirs about a debate he had with Suzman about sanctions at an American university.

Would Suzman take the same stance if she were a poor black woman, Magubane asked his stunned interlocutor. The answer was no.

How much of Suzman’s position was influenced by her relationship with established business, for example?

Renwick argues throughout the book that his subject was principled to a fault. “She was in touch with [the black poor]. She visited the townships every single week of her life. She found, as I did actually, that people did not want to lose their jobs, for very obvious reasons.

“I am not saying she was right about the sanctions, but personally I think she had a lot of force in her arguments. They were genuinely held,” he says.

Bright Star in a Dark Chamber is a well-told story about a woman who accomplished a lot during her long political career, as well as a voice that continued to be critical of the new rulers after the fall of apartheid.

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