Helen Suzman

2009-01-03 00:00

WHEN Helen Suzman entered Parliament in 1953, D. F. Malan, who led the National Party to power in 1948, was still in office. When she retired in 1989, F. W. de Klerk was moving towards a truly democratic dispensation. Through long decades of bitter political darkness, as Johannes Strijdom, Hendrik Verwoerd, B. J. Vorster and P. W. Botha constructed and relentlessly imposed the wickedness of apartheid, she made choices that led her to ever more resolute opposition to the regime. It was opposition which the dour patriarchs of the political establishment could barely tolerate, coming as it did from this uncompromisingly critical female voice. It was also opposition that they found impossible to comprehend. In the face of the swart gevaar and communist threat, it did not make sense for this white woman to espouse causes so obviously not in the interests of the white group. Amid politics driven by white self-interest, Helen Suzman stood firmly for a broader social justice.

A lone voice through a critical period, her personal and political courage was legendary. It was founded on her unswerving commitment to the classic liberal principles — the rights of the individual, democratic equality and justice under the rule of law. Ironically, the new order apparently has the same antipathy towards liberalism as the old and, still true to her principles, Suzman found much to criticise in post-apartheid South Africa. A beacon of enlightenment through times of fearful darkness, Suzman deserves the gratitude of the nation. May she rest in peace.

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