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.