Helen Suzman set great store by her word and did not believe in facades, political manoeuvrings or expedient collaborations, writes Devi Rajab.
Great people never die, or so it would seem, as their good deeds live long after them. Last week I attended the launch in Joburg of Sir Robin Renwick’s book on Helen Suzman.
It was a colourful affair, attended by old supporters and influential friends.
Ahmed Kathrada spoke about the impact Suzman had on the lives of prisoners on Robben Island.
He recalled an incident when Suzman came to the island to visit the political prisoners. They knew because their prison conditions improved for the visit and Nelson Mandela was moved to a cell far away from the rest so that by the time she would get to him, having spoken to all the other prisoners, the time with Mandela would be brief.
So Kathrada and his friends decided to simply inform her that Mandela would be their spokesman and thus saved the additional time for him.
To the Robben Islanders Suzman was akin to Florence Nightingale.
Renwick has brought back the spirit of Suzman in his book Bright Star in a Dark Chamber. It’s an easy and eloquent read, much like the subject herself. The author has artfully resurrected Suzman’s memory at the right time as South Africa prepares for elections. More than ever, we need to take heed of her message. She was an astute politician, principled to a fault.
What would she have said about Mamphela Ramphele’s political tango with the DA, especially since they go back a long way in a mentor-pupil relationship? I can hear her: “Mamphela, for heaven’s sake think before you act and once you have taken a stance, don’t renege on your word.”
What would she have said about Helen Zille? “For heaven’s sake stop this lesbian display of false love.”
And finally DAgang? “Abort this ugly creature now. It will never survive!”
For Suzman, her word was her honour and much like Gandhi she believed that politics was all about honour and morality. She did not believe in facades, political manoeuvrings or expedient collaborations.
Throughout her political history, as a lone voice in a sea of hostility, she strategically used the only weapon she had and that was her unbending belief in justice for all in an open society. She had a wicked sense of humour, cutting to the chase, lacerating her opponents with one linguistic barb after another, confessing that she too longed to be loved but was not prepared to make any concessions whatsoever.
On one occasion she retorted: “I do not know why we equate - and with the example before us - a white skin with civilisation.”
Post-1994 this line is still pertinent and could read it thus: “I do not know why we equate – and with the example before us – a black government with non-racialism.”
Suzman believed in the strong tradition of liberal values and the freedom of the press as an end in itself and objected to those who wanted it to suit their own needs while censoring others.
If she were alive today and active in politics she may well have been crudely labelled a white racist on account of her unequivocal stance on non-racialism and liberal values.
The times have changed in our political thinking and we see this in the DA’s search for black representation, which is a non-starter because the black electorate is diverse.
There are issues of education, class, ethnicity, and rural and urban divides that separate people on a continuum of political awareness and preference. As democracy evolves this diversity will grow across racial demarcations.
So, what is our hope for the future and what lessons can we learn from great people such as Walter Sisulu, Nelson Mandela and Suzman? Like many others, I had great hopes for Ramphele before she launched Agang to join mainstream politics.
I had watched her as a young Black Consciousness leader with Steve Biko when I addressed a vibrant crowd at the Medical School on the socio-psychological implications of Black Consciousness. I saw it as a means to an end and not an end in itself as I feared that an over-consciousness of race, liberating as it may have been, could lead to racial bigotry. I think they agreed at the time. Now, ironically, Ramphele is still afraid to take the lead, as Suzman would have done.
So, who are our young fearless leaders? For me, Thuli Madonsela comes tops. She is fearless and almost robotic in the execution of her duties. Few would be able to withstand the intimidation, the accusations and the denigration of her office by government.
Barbara Hogan is yet another strong woman who dared to challenge her party on its lack of a moral stance when it denied the Dalai Lama a visa to enter South Africa. For this she was ousted and we lost a dedicated and competent member of Parliament with unblemished political credentials.
Pregs Govender left a well-paid job in Parliament on a matter of principle too when she felt that monies that could be well spent on education were being squandered in the arms deal corruption.
She wrote about it in her book Love and Courage, emulating both qualities in her commitment to her principles.
Although Suzman’s memory will live on through strong South African women and the boulevard that we have named after her, we do need to erect a bronze statue of this beautiful soul who shaped our political landscape and showed us that truth comes in many colours.
The Star Africa Edition