Mondli Zondo

Black liberals should not be afraid to celebrate Helen Suzman

2017-11-07 08:21
Helen Suzman (File, AFP)

Helen Suzman (File, AFP)

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Throughout the year, African National Congress (ANC) has celebrated and commemorated the party's late president Oliver Tambo. Having passed on in 1993, Tambo didn't live to see the democratic South Africa he and so many others fought for.

Born in 1917, he would have turned 100 in October this year and it is befitting that the ANC pays tribute to him by honouring his contributions to the struggle for freedom.

Also turning 100 this year would have been the late anti-apartheid liberal heroine Helen Suzman. She was born exactly a century ago today (7 November 1917) and spent her career opposing the apartheid regime.

From 1961 to 1974, she sat alone in the opposition benches in Parliament calling out the racist government and drawing attention to the appalling conditions faced by black people. Her contributions were different from the likes of Tambo, who went into exile, but this should not render her endeavours insignificant.

She too has a place in our complicated history. Considering that November is her birthday month, there has been little to no mention of Suzman in the public domain to mark this occasion.

Conspicuous by their silence are black liberals who I believe are actually afraid to be seen to be praising the likes of Suzman. We have accepted and practice a trend in our country where the only struggle credentials we recognise are those associated with the ANC. This is not only unfair, but it is wrong.

In the case of Suzman, this is made more difficult by the fact that she was white. You see, because of the fact that apartheid was engineered and enforced by a white government, it is easier to make a blanket statement that all whites were in favour of black oppression. It is much harder to honour white people who opposed white minority rule, particularly if you are black, out of fear of being seen as a 'house negro' or a 'sellout'. This is the position black liberals find themselves in today.

There are two great ironies here. First, Suzman was revered by black liberation leaders who continued to pay homage to her after freedom was won in 1994. When President Nelson Mandela signed the Constitution into law in 1996, he asked Suzman to stand by his side. Winnie Madikizela-Mandela has spoken of how Suzman would visit her in Brandfort where she was banished by the regime and credited her with fighting to improve the living conditions of political prisoners.

During a lecture at the Wits Great Hall in 2008, Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke spoke about how he heard of Suzman as a child in Atteridgeville. He said he heard how the adults remarked how different Suzman was from "them"; I assume that was a reference to other whites. Leaders of all political persuasions agree that Suzman played an important role in our country and they have not been afraid to publicly declare this. You'd have better luck drawing blood from a rock than getting black liberals to do this.

The second irony is that black liberals have no qualms paying homage to white struggle leaders of other political backgrounds. They don't hold back in praising people like Helen Joseph, Ruth First or her husband Joe Slovo, for example. Again, this is an example of how black liberals are playing a game based on rules set by opponents of liberalism.

As someone who identifies as liberal, I understand firsthand how difficult it is to advance liberal values in a country where liberalism is not fully understood or broadly accepted. Liberalism is often viewed as promoting selfishness over ubuntu; seeking individual advancement over community benefit. Liberalism is largely seen as a 'white idea' and therefore not a black one. So how then should black liberals operate in this environment?

I think the starting point is that black liberals must accept that there is nothing wrong with being liberal. If the nationalists, socialists and right-wingers in our country have the audacity to wear their political identities with pride, then why shouldn't we?

There are political parties like the Freedom Front Plus who only proudly represent Afrikaner interests and conservative parties like the African Christian Democratic Party who oppose certain freedoms like same sex marriage. Such parties and individuals who support them carry no sense of shame in what they stand for and it is high time that black liberals took the same approach.

If black liberals do not stand up for liberalism in a country in which blacks are the majority, then the ideals of liberalism will die. Black liberals have internalised wholesale the idea that they have to be a certain way in order to be better accepted.

We should not seek to dress ourselves in ANC cloaks, for example, in hopes of making liberalism more popular. The truth is, there is discomfort amongst black liberals in being openly liberal and we see this with the overwhelming silence on Suzman. To successfully sell liberalism, we need to start believing in our own message.

Suzman was not perfect and I certainly do not agree with everything she did or stood for. I can say the same about Mandela. But if we want to keep liberal values alive then we need to be willing to pay homage to leaders who share our values no matter what their colour. The idea of liberalism is that we recognise one’s character over their colour or any other aspect of their identity, and so the fact that Suzman was white should not stand in the way of boasting about her achievements. Now that would be selling out.

Mondli Zondo (@MoZondo) is a columnist and a Mandela Washington Fellow. He writes in his personal capacity.

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