Tuesday, 11 August 2015

Helen Suzman - a retrospective appraisal

The veteran anti apartheid campaigner Helen Suzman was almost the only white South African feted by the British liberal establishment in the seventies. The British media and political class united to praise her opposition to the apartheid system. The Guardian considered that she 'single-handedly carried the anti-racism banner in South Africa’s apartheid parliament, her star the brightest in the liberal firmament'. Peter Hain, the Labour MP who led a number of anti-apartheid campaigns in Britain, declared that Mrs Suzman 'kept up her calls of protest when all others had been extinguished…..she was a doughty champion of human rights and a thorn in the side of the apartheid government in some of the most difficult, darkest times'. Is this unanimity of opinion justified, or are there rarely voiced arguments on the other side?

Between 1961 and 1974 she was the sole Progressive Party MP, opposed to the apartheid system.The other 164 MPs supported apartheid. In addition she was the only woman MP, so in fairness she must have demonstrated considerable courage in standing up for what she believed, in this clearly hostile environment. During this time voting was confined to the white electorate and the large black majority was completely disfranchised. However, historically this situation was no different to the rest of sub Saharan Africa, which until the 1960s had been almost wholly under European colonial rule.

Clearly disenfranchising people on the basis of race cannot be endorsed uncritically, since it gives the vote to semi literate white louts, but denies it to a professional lawyer such as Nelson Mandela. However, such a viewpoint in the South African situation would be crassly simplistic, since the overwhelming majority of whites were opposed to extending voting rights to the black population because they feared the consequences, namely the destruction and impovershiment of the country which they and their ancestors had created. It is very easy for armchair liberals several thousand miles away to denounce the evils of apartheid, safe in the knowledge that they will remain unaffected by what they advocate.

The consequences of majority rule in Black African countries are clear for all to see, the most glaring example being Zimbabwe, now a collapsed state but which under white rule was the most prosperous and crime free in Africa. Since the end of apartheid South Africa has become the murder, rape and robbery capital of the world. Whites are leaving in record numbers. Mrs Suzman represented the very prosperous Houghton constituency in Johannesburg. It now has to be policed and extensively patrolled by private security firms, paid at great expense by the local residents whose movements are now severely constrained, following a spate of shootings in the area. The local electorate, which idealistically kept re-electing Mrs Suzman, has seen its utopian dream come true.

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