APPEARANCES deceived where Helen Suzman was concerned. The petite and elegant figure, clad in two-pieces or nicely pressed slacks, her hair Thatcher-perfect, was clearly a denizen of the northern suburbs of Johannesburg, where discreet black domestics clipped the acacias and golf was played at weekends. Houghton, rich and Jewish, was indeed her constituency, and privilege was her life. But there the comfortable impression ended. Among the solid and overwhelmingly male Afrikaners in Parliament, “baying like hounds at a meet”, she was noisy, rude, contemptuous, “thoroughly nasty when I get going”. “A vicious little cat”, said P.W. Botha, South Africa’s prime minister, who often felt her claws in him. “The honourable member does not like me,” he observed once in Parliament. “Like you? I can’t stand you,” came the spitting reply. Verwoerd, an earlier prime minister, a man she admitted she was “scared stiff” of, fared no better. “I have written you off,” he told her. “The whole world has written you off,” she retorted.
Then there were her questions: as many as 200 of them a year, asked in Parliament and recorded in Hansard, on any subject that might embarrass South Africa’s white rulers. How many people were being held without trial? How many blacks were arrested each day for violating the Pass Laws? Why were they being forcibly removed to areas with nothing but rows of tin latrines, where only wattles grew in the sand? Why did the police turn up to remove them at four in the morning? Why did they use rubber bullets to disperse protesting crowds? Was it true that prisoners were kept in solitary confinement, beaten with straps, made to sleep on the floor? On, on, on. One National Party MP said she reminded him of “a cricket in a tree when it is very dry in the bushvelt. His chirping makes you deaf but the tune remains the same.” Botha said her “chattering” was like water dripping on a tin roof. Mrs Suzman was delighted to annoy them in the cause of justice.
In a parliamentary career of 36 years, she spent only six in a party of any size. She quit the paternal United Party in 1959, frustrated that it was so wobbly against apartheid, to join a Progressive Party of 12 members that was wiped out in an election two years later. She was the sole survivor, for 13 years a one-woman opposition to the relentless consolidation of white rule. The small but determined voice of the “neo-communist” and “sickly humanist” would call out “No”—to the Sabotage Act, the Terrorism Act, the Ninety-Day Detention Law—and she would be left sitting alone in a sea of empty green benches.
Her strength was that she knew the facts, and knew her rights. South Africa’s devotion to the Westminster parliamentary system, a figleaf of democracy over barbarism, meant that the Speaker was bound to let this “lone Prog” speak, and ministers had to answer her questions. She was allowed to bring one Private Member’s Motion a year, so she would try single-handedly to repeal the Prohibition of Mixed Marriages Act, or propose a minimum wage for blacks. As an MP, she could also visit prisons and “black spots” barred to the public; which was how she found herself talking to Nelson Mandela in his cell on Robben Island in 1967, or tramping through squatters’ camps of plastic sheets and corrugated iron. She was a precious mouthpiece to the world, as she was also the first resort for communists, Jehovah’s Witnesses, banned people, Coloureds resentful of their racial classification, and all the “sad harvest of the seeds of apartheid” that drifted through her office.
Did it make any difference? By 1974, after 20 years in Parliament, Mrs Suzman felt she had achieved little except identity-numbers for policemen, “because it helps to know who is beating you round the head”. She had stopped no law, and white rule was to run on for 20 more years. Her critics on the left always said far more force was needed to remove it. But she did not believe in force. Outsiders thought economic sanctions were the answer: but she did not believe in those, either. Her principles, to which she was always truthful, were those of a good old-fashioned liberal. Free markets, capitalism, the paramountcy of democracy and civil institutions, equal opportunity. She had always argued with her father, Sam Gavronsky, who had emigrated from Lithuania and made a success of the leather-and-soap trade, that blacks were oppressed rather than lazy, and couldn’t build a new life as readily as he had done. But when the African National Congress, once in power, began to impose quotas for blacks in jobs, she naturally and ferociously opposed it.
In many ways black rule proved “a huge disappointment” to her: corrupt, spendthrift, anti-white, and doing little to help the millions of poor blacks whose lot she had tried to improve. Thabo Mbeki’s wilful ignorance over AIDS appalled her. She spoke out about all of it, though the ANC seldom deigned to notice or reply. She was the past. In old age she sometimes seemed just another rich white suburbanite, comfortably behind her security fence, sighing over her whisky and soda about “that president of ours”. But the claws on her “pretty little pink hands” had drawn blood, and they were never retracted.