I Lagardien
I Lagardien

Helen Suzman had it good; let’s remember others who did not have it as good

Very many people have expressed their admiration of Helen Suzman since her death — which is fair. I don’t expect people to reconsider their opinions of Ms Suzman. What I really want to do with this post is introduce another perspective on Ms Suzman – as a white person in South Africa, one who benefited from apartheid, and who in some way, by providing the legislature with “legitimate opposition”, legitimised an unjust order.

Several years ago, I asked a former Progressive Federal Party/Democratic Party member who crossed the floor to join the African National Congress (ANC), to explain the basis of his decision. What he said has remained a metaphor for every time I have had to explain the difference between the objectives of white liberals in South Africa, and the liberation movement during the apartheid years.

I paraphrase: “Think of black people in this country as being tied down, with a very short leash that cuts into their throats. The liberals think that this is inhumane (as well they should) and want to ease the pain. The liberal solution is to ease the pain by lengthening the leash and easing the tension around the neck of the black person. I joined the liberation movement,” he said, “because I want to see the leash removed completely – and free the black person completely from oppressive restraint.”

This is the big problem I have always had with white liberals in South Africa during the apartheid period. Given the liberal tendency towards preserving a state of affairs that does not intervene with, or disrupt “the market” it is understandable, of course, that liberals would place “the market” or “the economy” before human rights or liberation. This preservation of the status quo became most significant around the issue of economic sanctions.

As most observers of politics during the apartheid years would recall, the liberation movement considered the disinvestment campaign and sanctions against apartheid as part of their arsenal in the fight against an iniquitous and unjust system. The liberals, and Ms Suzman in particular, were critical of sanctions. Ms Suzman, elected by one of the wealthier white constituents in South Africa, thought she had a better idea than indigenous black people and their representatives, or the liberation movement, about emancipation. Ms Suzman placed the demands or expectations of “the market” before that of justice for black people.

In an obituary the New York Times last week wrote the following:

“Her opposition to economic sanctions made her a contentious figure among some apartheid opponents, including protesters on American college campuses, like Brandeis and Harvard, where she received honorary degrees. “I understand the moral abhorrence and pleasure it gives you when you demonstrate,” she told a New York audience in 1986. “But I don’t see how wrecking the economy of the country will ensure a more stable and just society.”

I personally thought sanctions were destructive, but so were apartheid’s unjust laws … We had to make a choice and sanctions was one of the weapons we chose – unsurprisingly it was mainly white people with vested interest who were opposed to sanctions against apartheid.

During the 1980s, I was often called upon to explain the rationale for economic sanctions to European students, scholars and politicians. I was picked upon because I once wrote a piece in which I said that sanctions were probably not the right course of action – my alternative was bloody and more vengeful. I make no excuses for that, but let us not go into that.

The following was, however, the way in which I explained how (we) arrived at sanctions as an option. Imagine, I said: South Africa was a house in which black people lived. Then someday, a small band of whites took over the house and forced all the black people into a single room. They (the whites) then renovated the parts of the house in which they lived, they expanded and improved it and lived in relative prosperity. All the while they kept the black people confined to a single room with no lighting, running water or ways to manage their physical well-being. Although it was originally their own home, the black people were captive in a single room.

Whenever the black people protested, they were beaten up, imprisoned — some were even killed; whenever they petitioned for more resources, they were fed scraps from the tables of the white people. They lived in squalor in an under-developed room. Whenever the whites needed help to develop “their” part of the house, they employed black people; they “allowed” black people to leave their single room, with strict control over their movements … There was no way in which the black people could express themselves, nor were there any legitimate ways to break out of bondage. There was one option open to them, though. From their room, they could open a window to the streets and ask outsiders to cut the electricity and the water supply to the house. This, they thought, would bring the whites to their senses. We (black people) were prepared to endure for a while longer; our freedom was more important than a thriving household – from which we did not benefit anyway.

To cut a long story short, sanctions was an appeal by black people for the outside world to snuff out the economic stronghold that whites had on the economy, and thereby (try to) make them change their ways. Ms Suzman, kind as people may think she was, was one of the white people in the rest of the house.

Whatever we may think of the apartheid legislature, it was validated – within its own, narrow self-image – by a ruling party and an opposition. Ms Suzman chose to participate in an iniquitous structure that was destructive to black society. Her Progressive Federal Party consistently ran on a ticket of effective “opposition” — never abolition of the system. Her followers are well advised to look at the party’s election slogans over the years …

If we need white “heroes” or women who were “giants” or “relentless challengers of apartheid” (black or white), Ms Suzman is really not the place to start. I can list a hundred women, in a single stroke, who have contributed more directly to emancipation in South Africa – some of them have done so overtly, like Winnie Mandela or the late Helen Joseph, and others who may never be known, publicly, like Eleanor Kasrils — one of the strongest women I have ever met — or Albertina Sisulu.

Ms Suzman has left us … The last time I had a conversation with her, I told Ms Suzman everything that I have written here. She had a good life. She did well for Houghton; I am sure her constituents will celebrate her life. There are others, however, who have not had it as good as Ms Suzman or the people of Houghton during the apartheid years.

  • Miss Smacked

    Great read Ismail .. very good to get the unromantic and un-slushy perspective.. to all the rest of you whiners ..get a grip dears.

  • Rodney

    There isn’t a leader in SA who doesn’t live in luxury while most of the population still live in poverty. Their positions give them the means to do so.

    The difference is Suzman could have lived in luxury and not participated at all. Instead she chose to oppose the government from within – slowly winning respect and the hearts and minds of a misguided people. Did you give back the salary paid you by the world bank? I think I know the answer….

  • G S van Zyl

    From the Helen Suzman Foundation website:


    “For 13 years she was the sole Progressive Party MP and the only wholeheartedly anti-apartheid voice in the South African parliament. She achieved prominence both inside and outside parliament as one of the foremost champions of political reform and human rights in South Africa. She has been honoured for her work in the field of human rights by many influential organisations, including the United Nations with their United Nations Award for Human Rights in 1978, and in 1983 she received the New York International League for Human Rights Award. Twenty-seven honorary doctorates have been bestowed on her by various prestigious universities including Oxford, Harvard, Columbia, Brandeis, Yale, and Cambridge universities, and the university of the Witwatersrand. She has also twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 2002 she was awarded the International Freedom Prize by Liberal International. A perverse “honour”, of which she is inordinately proud, was being declared an “Enemy of the State” by Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe in 2001. In 1989 she was made a Dame of the British Empire – a rare honour for a foreigner.

    She was the only MP to visit Nelson Mandela and the other ANC leaders in jail and played a leading role in demanding better treatment for them and the release of political prisoners. Nelson Mandela writes in glowing terms of her visits to Robben Island – and the improvement in conditions that her interventions brought about.

    She served as president of the South African Institute of Race Relations from 1991 to 1993. She served on the Independent Electoral Commission that oversaw the first democratic election in 1994, and was for several years thereafter a member of the statutory Human Rights Commission.”

    It seems to me that she doesn’t really need your recognition, admiration and respect – she already received enough from the rest of the world.

    Ismael – Maybe the real cause of your complaint is the fact that she was not the member of some communist or Marxist liberation movement. She was a true liberal and wanted all South Africans to have the freedoms they enjoy today.

  • unoxio

    Brilliant piece Ismail

  • G S van Zyl

    Gerry – Ayn Rand? Objectivism? Pure laissez-faire capitalism ?

    Somehow I think the ANC is not quite ready for that (and will never be). Would be nice though.

  • Roger

    Thandile Kona, you said:

    >An example of this unholy liberal agenda is the
    >effort at silencing every differing voice like
    >yours. Just have a look at the responses to your
    >post and you will see what I’m talking about.

    No, the commentators are not silencing Lagardien (although his posts are at best nonsensical), they are criticising his views.

    That is what being a liberal democracy is about. Flame-baiters like Lagardien can say what they like publicly, and anyone can respond in kind.

    Please, please try to understand that freedom of speech is just that — that anyone can state a point of view, and anyone can comment on it, free from sanction by the State or other powerful group.

    “I may not agree with what you say, but I will fight to the death for your right to say it.”

    So, dear Thandile, until you get it through your skull that free debate, entirely unrestricted by ideology, is allowed and encouraged, South Africa will have no future as a democracy. Which means not only tollerating the people that dissent from your view (and that of Lagardien), but actively encouraging and defending their right to publicly do so.

  • Lisa

    Nadja, interesting comment on my comment. I never said the issue is whether ‘white liberals win’ – but criticizing them whether they resisted as Suzuman did or if they failed to resist at all or whatever they did, means that that they could not please the writer in any event. That is the issue. Of course one should celebrate people in the context of their actions – noone said the value of white activism should be inflated either – but acknowledged, rather than set aside as white liberals who can’t do right. One can see Suzman as a supporter of the regime or as a freedom fighter from the inside out. Depends on the eyes of the beholder.
    But that does not address my further point.
    This standard and critique of white liberals should be evenly applied including to the current situation in Zim. Do Isi’s principles extend to true freedom or a black/white form of oppression (Zimbabwe being excluded)?
    If every ruling party is legitimized by its opposition, then what is the solution? No opposition? Ludicrous.

  • Paul Whelan


    You do know the solution in SA really: it is time, slow time.

    History is the great teacher and what is certain is that one day things will not be as they are now. It is impossible to know when that will be; meanwhile these are the times we all live in.

    The only way out is the personal one @Brandon points to.

    Any prison here is of our own making. Mandela famously escaped from his. Many others have. Many never do.

    Ismail has confessedly enjoyed many advantages: higher education spanning the bracing air of LSE and the languor of South Carolina, travel, success in the hard-eyed world of journalism – should have rendered him more cheerful.

    Perhaps he just needs to get out more.

  • http://letpeoplespeak.amagama.com Lyndall Beddy


    Dear God – are you ignorant! ALL parties were not allowed to be multi racial by decree of the Nats, which is why the Communist Party of SA became the SACP and went underground, and the Liberal Party disbanned. AND the ANC only allowed black membership until 1985. Coloured, Indians and Whites were not allowed membership.


    Tony Weaver publiched an article in the Cape Times a few months ago which was just a list of names of white women who fought against apartheid – there were hundreds and hundreds of names.


    Helen was right to be against sanctions. So was Alan Paton. So was Buthelezi. So was Margaret Thatcher. So was Ronald Reagan. The fight was against atheism and communism for the latter two, not against blacks.

    And Helen was right when she said strikes would be more effective – they were. Which was the basis of the UMF, which worked. Unlike the non- effective, non- existant “armed struggle” myth of the ANC. The front line states dumped them as an embarrassment – and eventually the Russians did as well. Read some biographies. Mark Gevisser’s “The Dream Deferred” is a good start.

  • http://mandrake.amagama.com Mandrake

    Sheesh, a bit harsh if i say so maself…

  • http://mandrake.amagama.com Mandrake

    Further to my sheeshy comment, i’ll commend the Lady having done something in her life to fight apartheid. Most people thought they were contributing by giving their nannies old clothes and grocery money.

    the fact that we’re having this discussion about this strong woman today is testament of something.

  • http://necrofiles.blogspot.com Garg Unzola

    Helen Suzman took on the apartheid government with her mind, which is more than could be said for anyone who committed acts of terrorism during the regime.

  • http://gmail Mbuzeni Ngwenya


    Thank you for this submission, I agree with you completely she had it good,well I read a number of biographies about her, to be honest she never had any impact on me no matter how liberal she was. As a young South African myself the definition I had about liberalist differed from those who regarded themselves as such. I respected her as a fellow South African and politician. Her opinion were in opposite direction with the ones I had during apartheid however it would not be fair for me to ignore the little that other people acknowledges about her. My justification would be maybe she had to take a decision and whether that decision was good or bad it made her believe in what she stood for. Good article.

  • Terry

    Ismail, if anything you know how to solicit a response!

    Mine is: “provide another perspective” which everyone has a right to do, but if you really believe in the power of the pen and your motive is to use your talent to provoke thought not cause harm, it would be exemplary to do so consistently.

    By this I mean that I look forward to your articles in upcoming years of “[black people or any person of colour]…in South Africa, who benefited from apartheid, and who in some way, by providing the legislature with “legitimate opposition”, legitimised an unjust order.” (Yes, for many the ANC are unjust – the rich get richer and the poor get poorer and neighbouring countries are destroyed with consent)…if some current SA elect are anything to go by, along with Robert Mugabe, you will be writing articles like these for years to come.

    On another note I would be interested to read your view point on women like Winnie Mandela who you list in your article entitled “Helen Suzman had it good; let’s remember others who did not have it as good” as I recall Winnie’s residence was in Houghton at some point…whilst many still lived in squalor in an under-developed room? Okay, I’m just badgering but its what you asked for or you wouldn’t write what you write, right?

    Either way people are never really happy. If Helen did nothing she would’ve been cited as an outright bigot.

    Personally I think she possibly did more, unintentionally, to highlight the role women could play in shaping society. But that’s an opinion not a quantified statement and I’d be interested in a productive story that could enlighten me on whether or not this is true.

    Thanks for challenging my thinking even if I don’t agree with you.

  • cyberdog

    You speak very loudly about racism, and racial benefit. When you are in the exact same position, I’m battling to decide which part is sadder, your blatant racism, or your hatred to what you are benefiting from. What have you contributed for others, or other races that equals, or that which even comes close to what Helen contributed. Let the one with no glass roof cast the first stone. And from your article, that sure as hell is not you.

  • pete ess

    Ismail! Easy, man! You’re stepping on white corns. Eina!
    Each of us invents our myths and we hate having them punctured.

  • anton kleinschmidt

    What strikes me about the anti HZ brigade is just how mean spirited their view of the world really is. They have been unable to leverage political and economic freedom to their personal advantage and seek someone to blame for this failure.

    In contrast to these carping comments you might care to read what Stanley Uys has to say at


  • anton kleinschmidt

    @ Mbuzeni…you say….”Her opinion were in opposite direction with the ones I had during apartheid”.

    Does this mean that you supported apartheid.

    By the way my earlier post should have read the “anti HS” brigade….a freudian slip perhaps

  • Jean Racine

    To all those effronted by Largadien’s views, I pose this simple question: should liberated France have bestowed equal honours to both the Resistance and the “Opposition” in the Vichy parliament?

  • A Luta

    Thank you for the interesting piece, it affirms what I have always believed about some white liberals: They seemed to be saying ‘I don’t support appartheid but…’

    Obviously the perpetuation of the apartheid system served their interests but now that we have freedom the have shed their skins and make as if all they want are the protection of civil liberties and an to crime etc. fooling us into thinking that clour has no bearing in their political outlook.

  • Paul Whelan

    Jean Racine

    If that is a ‘simple question’, it is a relief you did not ask a hard one.

  • anton kleinschmidt

    @ Jean… a nit pick, but I think that you meant affronted. Check effrontery.

    Your analogy is an apt only in so far as it ignores the relatively minor contribution that the Resistance made to the liberation of France and Europe. Not sure that struggle heros and their praise singers would consider their role as minor.

    I do not understand why you would choose to equate Suzman supporters with Vichy. Whether you like it or not there was a difference between the Progs / DP and the Nats during apartheid. I suspect that anti white racists would prefer to ignore this reality as it undermines their exclusive claim to victimhood

    @ A Luta

    Are you suggesting that if I were black I would not want … “the protection of civil liberties and an to crime etc” whatever the latter means.

  • jeremy feldman

    You mention Eleanor Kasrils I googled her and this is what came up

    Eleanor Kasrils pardoned

    JOHANNESBURG — Eleanor Kasrils, the wife of Water Affairs and Forestry Minister Ronnie Kasrils, was granted amnesty by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) yesterday for her involvement in the Durban Central Post Office bombing in 1962.

    Mrs Kasrils was also pardoned for bombing the Durban security police offices, stealing dynamite, escaping from police custody at Pietermaritzburg’s Fort Napier Hospital, (illegally) crossing the Botswana border and destroying electricity pylons near Pinetown between 1962 and 1963, said TRC spokesman Phila Ngqumba.

    IN which wounding eight people wounded, three of them children.
    I dont have to google Winnie to know that she used violence.
    My problem with you is your whole article basically states if you fight for something you believe in from within the law and don`t use violence or destructive force what you are doing is worthless.
    I don`t like what you are saying so should I use Eleanor Kasrils solution

  • Phillipa Lipinsky

    Ismail, you are a compassionate intellectual with integrity. Do not expect your insights to be received with the respect they command on this site because many commentators are racist-denialist-fools.
    You are a true gem and I thank God we have people like you to fly the South African flag abroad and inform the West about the truth.

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