Appraisal: Suzman’s Courage Failed Her

By Denis Goldberg

Published January 08, 2009, issue of January 16, 2009.

Cape Town — Helen Suzman has died, and the praise for her is deafening — deafening and uncritical. She was indeed a courageous person who, for 13 of her 36 years in South Africa’s whites-only parliament, was a lone voice of opposition to the brutality of apartheid.

She had come a long way from the days when she was elected as a member of the then United Party, which was firmly racist in its policies and had been the governing party for many years, until 1948, when the white electorate brought the (Afrikaner) National Party to power. To better oppose the increasingly oppressive apartheid laws, Suzman and 10 others broke away to form the Progressive Party–though she intially did not support universal, one-man-one-vote sufferage. She and her party stood for liberal policies that ultimately would maintain the social and economic status quo, but in a way that was more humane. For that, the ruling party vilified her.

At a personal level, it is quite difficult to be critical of Suzman in the face of the adulation heaped upon her. Those of us imprisoned for our committed opposition to apartheid and for one-person-one-vote in a fully equal system of political rights are grateful to her for her determination to see that our prison conditions were improved.

Official Jewry in South Africa now claims Jews who opposed apartheid as campaigners for justice TO BE the models of righteous Jewry! Such opportunism! During the years of apartheid, the Jewish establishment either actively supported it or refused to take a stand against it. As far as I know, Suzman was a secular Jew who made little of her Jewishness. Yet it must be noted that her electoral constituency consisted of many well-off Jewish families.

Nevertheless, for all of Suzman’s efforts, she and other members of her party did not ever take a stand against big business, which fully supported apartheid. For this group, apartheid was the basis of a system of exceptionally low wages and, therefore, high profit margins. Big business was deeply engaged in the military-industrial sector that directly maintained apartheid and was the channel for foreign capital, technology and diplomatic support to maintain the system.

Adept as Suzman was at exposing the inhumanity of apartheid, she spoke nationally and internationally against the the liberation movement led by Nelson Mandela and other great leaders. She also campaigned activelly against the movement’s call for international economic, cultural, academic and sporting sanctions, and against its call for the boycott of South African goods.

In 1971, during the African National Congress’s long struggle for international sanctions, Oliver Tambo, the ANC’s legendary exiled leader went so far as to group her with leaders of South Africa’s apartheid government as “agents of colonialism”–though 18 years later he would celebrate her as “the parliament’s unfading star.”

Suzman could not bring herself to accept that it would be the mass movement for liberation that would force big business to realize that the old system could not continue. Yet ultimately, that is what happened. Big business’s profitable system of cheap labor became steadily less so, due to continual unrest, strikes, passive resistance, armed actions and international sanctions. By the time apartheid ended, the country was technically bankrupt. The mass movement had succeeded.

It is my opinion that Suzman, with her opposition to this mass movement and to the ANC, and her support of the anti-sanctions campaign, prolonged our struggle for liberation and caused serious loss of life. In the end, she and her party would rather have seen apartheid continue than see the ANC come to power, because, for them, it embodied both the black and Red dangers through its alliance with the Communist Party.

Yet, in a sense, Suzman has won this ideological battle. South Africa has a wonderful constitution that guarantees all the rights our people could possibly want to enjoy — except that they cannot be realized in a world system that prevents people from earning a living and prevents developing countries from creating jobs and equity. In a sense, that ideology is represented by Suzman sitting at the right knee of Mandela at many public events. One wonders who has captured who, as so many of the leaders of the liberation movement have been co-opted by big business and they enjoy the perks of having arrived. Their praise for Helen Suzman is unstinted.

Denis Goldberg was convicted of armed rebellion with Nelson Mandela and 10 others in 1964 for his membership in Spear of the Nation, the military wing of the African National Congress. He served 22 years in a South African prison.



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