Against apartheid, at odds with blacks


JOHANNESBURG, South Africa - Helen Suzman still gets hate mail. These days it comes mainly from black South Africans, not white defenders of the racist apartheid regime against which she waged a determined and often lonely battle during 36 years in Parliament.

"You were just a spy of the Jews," begins the latest letter, an unsigned note that arrived this week alleging Jewish exploitation of the country's majority black population.

Suzman, who is sharp of mind and tongue at 87, tossed the letter on a table at her home north of Johannesburg and said such nastiness did not bother her. "I don't frighten easily," she said.

Suzman, once famous for her staunch opposition to apartheid, has emerged as a fierce critic of the ruling black-led African National Congress and President Thabo Mbeki. Her complaints range from "reverse racism" to the slow rollout of life-saving AIDS medicine. Mbeki has responded with barbed criticisms of his own.

There has always been tension between anti-apartheid whites and the black-led ANC, but the gulf has widened since former President Nelson Mandela - a close friend of Suzman's whom she first visited in prison 38 years ago - left office in 1999.

The rift goes beyond who did what during the long struggle against apartheid until its demise in the early 1990s. It cuts to the heart of a key question: Who has standing to help shape the future of a mostly black country of 45 million, whose 6 million whites retain a disproportionate share of economic power?

Though both the ANC and white liberals - a catchall label often used for white opponents of apartheid - campaigned for democracy, their political philosophies have diverged. The liberals favor a free-market, individualist approach; the ANC pushes for affirmative action programs so blacks gain control over "all the levers of power."

To some longtime analysts, Suzman and other whites who share her views have been too hard on a government still finding its way after decades of white oppression. Suzman, out of Parliament 16 years now, criticizes Mbeki and the government so "provocatively" in speeches and letters to the editor that it has marred her reputation, said Allister Sparks, a prominent journalist and author who sees himself as a white liberal.

Sparks agrees that Mbeki has major faults, including his unwavering support for President Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe. But he says the Democratic Alliance, the white-led opposition party to which Suzman belongs, has been "vicious" in its criticism of Mbeki.

"It depends on what weight you give to errors," said Sparks. "If you're going to denounce a party because it doesn't get everything right, that's tough. I don't know who you're going to support."

Sparks credits Suzman with helping to nudge white South Africans toward a negotiated settlement in the early 1990s and says it is a shame she is not getting that credit.

"It's terribly sad that she hasn't been able to move on in a more understanding way and receive the acclaim from the black community she really does deserve," he said. "It's in part her fault."

Others point a finger at the ANC and say Suzman remains a voice of reason. They say the ruling party is minimizing the contribution of whites to sideline them in political debates.

"One needs to see the attempt to airbrush white liberals out in the context of the present government's desire to create a particular version of history in which liberation was brought about solely by the ANC," said John Kane-Berman, chief executive of the South African Institute of Race Relations, a venerable anti-apartheid group. Suzman is a vice president.

"That tends to delegitimize the role that anybody else played and undermines the potential role they might play in the future," said Kane-Berman, who is white. "If the official version of events is that the liberals, white or otherwise, did nothing, their moral right to say anything critical of the present government and its policies is undermined."

The institute, founded in 1929, tried during apartheid to expose the white government's reliance on detentions without trial, a tactic used to silence and intimidate opponents. The ANC put such information to good use, Kane-Berman said, but it now resents the institute's focusing attention on unemployment, crime and the government's effort to control the judiciary.

"There is a deeply authoritarian streak in the ANC, and nothing demonstrates this better than their current, almost Soviet-type attempt at a history of the recent past," Tony Leon, leader of the Democratic Alliance, said in an e-mail. "George Orwell would have sized them up well: 'He who controls the present controls the past ... he who controls the past controls the future.' "

Mbeki has obliquely fired back at Suzman and other critics. Earlier this year he used his weekly "Letter from the President" to suggest that liberals were disingenuous all along for having said they opposed apartheid while opposing armed struggle and economic sanctions against South Africa.

"They say they are 'in favor of change, and clearly in favor of change.' They say they support the objective of building a democratic South Africa but view the popular support our movement enjoys as a threat to democracy," Mbeki wrote.

"They say they support the creation of a non-racial society but are opposed to affirmative action and black economic empowerment, which they denounce as being nothing more than the perpetuation and entrenchment of 'crony capitalism.' "

Suzman comes in for special criticism for having served in Parliament at a time when only whites could vote. In November, columnist Jon Qwelane repeated the view that she buttressed the system.

"No matter how many supporters of her politics will argue," he wrote, "they will not remove the fact that her presence in the apartheid structures gave racism and apartheid a credibility they needed desperately."

It is a claim Suzman has heard for a half-century, and she still rolls her eyes. Being in Parliament allowed her to ask pointed questions of the government that the press often could not ask, she said. Since anything said in Parliament could be printed in newspapers, the answers reached the public and were used by the ANC's propaganda machine.

"Without me, they wouldn't have had it, but they castigated me for legitimating Parliament," she said. "It's ridiculous."

Suzman had not planned to become a politician. She was lecturing on economic history at Johannesburg's University of the Witwatersrand in the late 1940s when the Race Relations Institute asked her to help research laws affecting urban blacks. Shocked by what she learned, she became active in the United Party, then the main opposition party to the right-wing National Party.

In 1953 she was asked to run for Parliament. She had two young children and was reluctant, but her husband, a prominent physician, Moses Suzman, said: "Give it a go."

Helen Suzman took office as the National Party was busy implementing the apartheid system through legislation: the Bantu Education Act, which imposed inferior education for blacks; the Job Reservation Bill, which guaranteed skilled jobs for whites; the Separate Amenities Act, and so on.

In 1959, Suzman and 11 colleagues broke from the right-drifting United Party to form the Progressive Party. Two years later, she was its only member to win re-election. For the next 13 years, she was the lone member of Parliament who was unalterably opposed to apartheid and the violence the government used to enforce it.

Supported by a liberal constituency in the wealthy Johannesburg suburb of Houghton, she made human rights her focus. She visited prisoners such as Mandela. She went to squalid townships and resettlement areas, where hundreds of thousands of blacks were forcibly moved. She attended funerals of slain activists such as Stephen Biko. She helped families of detainees learn their loved ones' whereabouts and sometimes got them freed.

And she spoke out in Parliament. Unlike whites who were members of the South African Communist Party, which was banned, she was never deprived of a platform.

During a debate in 1964, she stood to oppose an amendment to the "pass laws," which limited where blacks could go. The bill, she said, "ignores all the fundamental concepts of human dignity. It strips the African of every basic pretension that he has to being a human being, to being a free human being in the country of his birth, and it reduces him to the level of a chattel, to the level of a servant."

When she finished speaking, a National Party member took the microphone and likened her to a chirping cricket. He suggested she leave the country. To Ghana, suggested another.

Through the years, she said, she put up with slurs, many of them anti-Semitic. One member of Parliament who sat behind her often hissed, "Jewish Communist!" People called her home at night and shouted expletives.

Suzman retired from Parliament in 1989, just before apartheid was dismantled. Five years later, on the eve of Mandela's historic victory, she told an interviewer, "I'm just amazed that I survived to see this tremendous transformation from a really authoritarian state to a country which is to become a normal democracy. I honestly didn't think I would live to see it."

Today she says she has not lived to see it, after all.

"I'm disappointed," she said over tea, flanked by two of her three dogs. She was widowed in 1994, and her two daughters have for decades lived overseas, in London and Boston.

"I still think it's a better country than it was. And my criticism does not mean I would like to go back to the apartheid government. I hoped it would be replaced by a government that had some understanding of democracy, which this government doesn't have."

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