Friday, 9 January 2009

Respect is due: Helen Suzman, 1917 - 2009

Astonishing woman, she was the sole voice of opposition in the South African parliament for years, and inspite of the opprobrium heaped on her - for opposing Apartheid, for being Jewish - she never let herself be intimidated. And she lived to be 91 years old. Who says only the good die young?

Still, the fact that they are dying raises a worrying prospect.

Just as we have seen those who support the Nazi and Facsist regimes in Europe grow in confidence as those who fought the regimes or sufferred from their evil dwindle in number, the thinning of the ranks of those who directly experienced or fought Apartheid may lead to a resurgence of supprot for that obscene idea. It is impossible for the white minority regaining the power it held democratically, but it is possible to envisage a terrorist underground of self-styled 'freedom fighters' being established as direct links to the bad old days - and direct contact with the people who brought them to an end - are lost.

Some detail on this remarkable woman:

Helen Suzman was renowned for her lone fight against apartheid in South Africa's parliament. An MP for nearly four decades, she waged her battle alone for 13 years, as the sole representative of the Progressive Party from 1961 to 1974, when the ruling Afrikaner Nationalist party was at the height of its power. She was insulted, mocked and condemned – for her views and because she was Jewish – but she never let up her fierce, informed criticisms of the policies of racism that the Nationalists imposed on the country and their authoritarian rule. She remained an MP until 1989, when the apartheid system was finally coming to an end.
...

The general election in 1961 marked a new low point in opposition to apartheid. The major black organisations, the African National Congress and the Pan-Africanist Congress, which were not allowed in parliament, had been banned the previous year. Now the Progressives collapsed: only Suzman was re-elected, scraping in with a margin of 564 votes.

During the years in which she was the single representative of the Progressive Party, Suzman grew into a formidable member of parliament. Backed by a small research team she tirelessly asked probing questions of the Nationalist government and spoke in one debate after another.

She was blind to colour and to political belief. Her concern was to fight against apartheid injustice. It did not matter who the victim was – whatever his or her skin colour, religion or politics. All that counted was that a person was suffering and needed help. This made her uniquely brave in those hard years, in which South Africans of colour were ignored except by only a few whites, and in which people of the left were feared and shunned. To be outside the confines of the white parliamentary system meant you were beyond the pale of acceptance.

But Suzman did not care. She fought for anyone and everyone who turned to her for help: Communists, African nationalists, left-wingers, liberals. There was an unending stream of people coming to ask for her help. The United Party's MPs were effete and useless and Suzman grew into a one-woman opposition in confronting and challenging the tide of Afrikaner Nationalist racist and discriminatory laws and practices and their enforcement through ever-harsher police and administrative action.

In 1963 she was the only MP who voted against the government's draconian legislation to institute 90-day detention without trial – which was later extended to 180 days and then indefinite detention. In 1965 she was the only MP who condemned the seizing of power by Rhodesia's whites. Her consistent voting against apartheid had virtually no success – but she was widely admired as a beacon of enlightenment in the South African murk. (1)

1 - "Helen Suzman: South African parliamentarian who waged a 36-year battle against the injustices of apartheid," by Benjamin Pogrund, published in The Independent, 2nd of January, 2008. (http://www.independent.co.uk/news/obituaries/helen-suzman-south-african-parliamentarian-who-waged-a-36year-battle-against-the-injustices-of-apartheid-1221039.html)

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