Growing up in Johannesburg in the mid-1990s, I had the great privilege of knowing Helen Suzman, the legendary white anti-apartheid activist and South African parliamentarian who died on New Year’s Day. This outspoken and fearless promoter of racial equality and political liberty was an inspiration to me as to many others. I saw her for the last time in November 2007. She was just about to celebrate her 90th birthday, but if she was increasingly frail, there was nothing retiring about her views. She called Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe a “murderer” and thought Thabo Mbeki, then South Africa’s president, “despicable” for not doing more about AIDS and Zimbabwe.
Only Nelson Mandela, who’d come calling a week before my visit, had gone on walking on water. Together they had fought and defeated apartheid, but Helen’s views, like Mandela’s, had grown more suffered than listened to in the new South Africa. There was, as she put it, “no appetite” for her brand of classical liberalism under the iron fist of Mbeki’s African National Congress. Though she felt that the end was near, she was determined to go on speaking out and to protect her legacy from “being airbrushed from South African history.”
Helen Gavronsky was born into a family of Lithuanian Jews in Germiston, a suburb of Johannesburg, in 1917. She studied business and economics at the University of the Witwatersrand. During World War II, she worked as a statistician at the War Supplies Board and then returned to the University of the Witwatersrand to lecture on economic history. In 1953, she was elected to parliament on the United party ticket. Judging the UP too subservient to the apartheid regime, she switched to the Progressive party in 1959 and remained in parliament until 1989.
The ultimate goals of the Progs, as they were called, were an end to all race-based discrimination and universal suffrage. Yet as independence movements led much of Africa to tyranny and economic ruin, the white electorate in South Africa cooled on political reform. Between 1961 and 1974, Helen was the only unambiguously anti-apartheid politician in parliament. Yet she persisted in hounding the political establishment. When the National party government accused her of deliberately asking embarrassing questions, Suzman retorted, “It’s not my questions that are embarrassing South Africa, but your answers.”
Throughout her parliamentary career, Helen was subjected to relentless attacks from the government benches. There were shouts of “Go back to Moscow” and “Go back to Israel” as she rose to speak. Prime Minister P.W. Botha called her a “vicious little cat.” “I am provocative, and I admit this,” Helen later said. “It isn’t as if I’m only on the receiving end, a poor, frail little creature. I can be thoroughly nasty when I get going, and I don’t pull my punches.”
To understand this tenacious and stubborn woman, one has to understand her philosophy. “I stand for simple justice, equal opportunity, and human rights. … [These are] the indispensable elements in a democratic society — and well worth fighting for,” she said. A liberal of the old school, Helen wanted people to be treated on merit and not because of their race or gender. For years, she toured South African jails, visiting inmates — including Mandela on Robben Island — and advocating for more humane treatment of prisoners. She was one of the early campaigners for more transparency and accountability in anti-terror legislation.
As a trained economist, Helen saw the free market as the best way to reduce poverty. But she thought a free economy was about more than just material well-being; it would undermine the injustice of apartheid. With its restrictive labor laws and considerable degree of state planning, apartheid was meant to protect the white minority from cheaper black labor and the supposed predations of “Jewish capital.” South Africa’s leaders loved to rail against capitalism as the enemy of white civilization. Hendrik Verwoerd, prime minister between 1958 and 1966, wrote, “There are people who [argue that] … simply everything … must be made subordinate to their so-called economic laws. … It is fortunate that under a Nationalist government these worshippers of economic laws have never had their way but a nobler and higher goal has been striven after — the maintenance of white civilization.”
The National party politicians correctly surmised that the much-maligned profit-motive would lead private companies to compete for the best workers regardless of race. Like Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the founders of apartheid saw capitalism as a revolutionary force that was inimical to the status quo. Thus, the early apartheid legislation received support from white trade unions and from the South African Communist party, which proclaimed, “Workers of the world, unite to keep South Africa white!” (The SACP later changed its position on civil rights, though its opposition to capitalism remained.) Helen, however, saw the freedom to earn a living free of government intervention as an important step toward defeating apartheid long before race equality became a rallying cry of the left.
It was perhaps only natural that Helen, who had seen the government used for evil, would be skeptical about its ability to promote virtue. As Mandela’s vision of an inclusive “rainbow nation” gave way to the Afrocentrism of Thabo Mbeki, racial divisiveness reentered South African politics. Opponents of the ANC were regularly dismissed simply because of the color of their skin. “Debate is almost nonexistent and no one is apparently accountable to anybody apart from their political party bosses,” Helen said in 2004. “It is bad news for democracy in this country. Even though we didn’t have a free press under apartheid, the government of that day seemed to be very much more accountable in parliament.”
Helen derived great satisfaction from seeing all the apartheid legislation scrapped, and blacks and whites vote as equal citizens in the 1994 elections. But the apparent inability, or unwillingness, of the ANC to tackle AIDS, crime, corruption, and persistent poverty made her as scathing in her attacks on black nationalists under Mbeki as she had been on the white nationalists during apartheid.
Helen is often called an “icon,” but she despised the word and the attention. Behind her self-deprecating response to international adulation lurked a worry. In its drive to consolidate power, the ANC has created a liberation myth that overemphasizes its role in bringing about majority rule. Such a myth is useful; it enables the ANC to monopolize the appearance of virtue and, with it, power. Helen’s career reminds us that life under apartheid was more complex. She embodied the determination of a minority of white South Africans to oppose injustice wherever they saw it. No matter how stony the African soil is for classical liberal ideas, they will, courtesy of Helen Suzman, forever remain a viable alternative to race-based politics.