Commentary

Statement on the Death of Helen Suzman

By Tony Leon
This article appeared on Cato.org on January 1, 2009

Helen Suzman was my predecessor as Member of Parliament for Houghton. When I entered parliament, in controversial circumstances and against her wish to be replaced by another, I realised that I was actually standing on the shoulders of a giant. Although our relationship commenced in the best of circumstances when I was a young activist in her constituency, my passage to parliament created a chill which took some years to repair. But I knew that hers was a mighty, indeed, impossible legacy of achievement to match. But I learnt some very critical and important lessons from her powerful example of public service.

As a person she had extraordinary reserves of stamina and courage which she used to great effect to expose both the perversities of apartheid and to keep alive the democratic values which were systematically eroded by the system which her belief in simple justice obliged her to oppose.

But as she acknowledged both to me and to the world, the parliament she served in offered her almost unlimited opportunities to play the role of doughty fighter, despite the fact that she never belonged to a party in power.

She once observed, “It is perhaps ironic that a government as authoritarian as that of the National Party had a deeply revered respect for the parliamentary system.”

She used the system to the limits in order to shed light on the darkest corners of the apartheid state, and she used the powers and privileges of parliament, in the words of one of her election slogans to, “Fight to put things right”, from improving the conditions of Robben Island prisoners, to exposing the harsh edges of the Group Areas Act.

She said to me quite recently that I had a much more difficult job than her because she had the protection of an impartial Speaker and the support of a media which believed in exposing the opposition viewpoint. Therefore, while Helen was a staunch liberal, and in the language of the old South Africa and in some of her stances (such as legalising Dagga) even something of a radical, she was also a conservative. She believed in conserving institutions like parliament and the courts of law and never supported the root and branch change which others called for often in the most destructive fashion.

This led Thabo Mbeki in 2006 to accuse her of being “in favour of change while determined to resist it”. On this matter Mbeki was completely wrong because Suzman never believed in ideological change for its own sake, but favoured the sort of sensible transition which could make people’s lives better regardless of race or circumstances.

She fortunately lived long enough to see the system she so vigorously opposed collapse and witnessed the birth of a new constitutional order, many of whose elements were the central pillars of her own convictions. She maintained a steadfast and unsentimental eye on current developments and remained utterly unafraid to confront the new government when necessary, and compliment it where possible. To her dying day she was utterly unimpressed by rank and uninterested in the trappings of political or state power.

We should look upon her mighty legacy of achievement - and learn from it. We will not see its like again.

Tony Leon is a visiting fellow at the Cato Institute.