Helen Suzman, who for thirteen years was the only opposition member of the South African parliament and for her entire career was a tireless advocate for individual liberty and personal responsibility, passed away on New Year's Day at the age of 91.
Best known as a fierce opponent of apartheid, the system of state socialism and racial separatism that characterized South Africa from 1949 until 1994, Suzman was a humane, intelligent, and courageous political activist.
Although I worked closely on South African issues for almost 20 years beginning in the late 1970s, my only personal encounter with Mrs. Suzman came at a 1989 lecture she delivered for the Cato Institute in Washington. (A photograph from that occasion is printed on page 55 of this 2001 annual report of the Cato Institute; I wish I had one of my own of the two of us together.) That lecture is included in Toward Liberty: The Idea That Is Changing the World, published by Cato in 2002.
Suzman's Cato lecture took place in October 1989, mere months before President F.W. De Klerk freed Nelson Mandela from Robben Island and began the process of deracializing South African law and government.
She spoke, in part, about the counterproductive effects of economic sanctions against South Africa, a topic of special interest to me since I had written a book about it just a few years earlier. In her lecture, Suzman noted that some (but not all) of the more onerous laws that undergirded apartheid had begun to be repealed in the 1980s, often as the result of internal upward economic forces rather than because of external political or economic pressures:
I should mention that the laws that have been changed have been changed because of both economic factors and the steady escalation of black resistance within South Africa. The changes in the laws were not the consequences of sanctions, as some people claim. The changes took place between 1979 and June 1986. The U.S. Comprehensive Antiapartheid Act was enacted in November 1986, after those laws had been abolished. I'm not trying to say that international pressures do not play a part. Of course they do. They have an effect on the thinking of white politicians, and certainly they've had an effect on the integration of sports and in other areas where the political power structure itself is not affected.Later in her remarks, Suzman tried to predict what might happen in the near future (that is, the early 1990s). While not precisely on target, the hopes she expressed were nearer to what would become fact than perhaps even she would suggest at the time:
Nevertheless, I must emphasize that economic factors within South Africa have been the main forces behind the changes that have already taken place. Job reservation disappeared because there just were not enough whites to do the skilled work. The pass laws and influx control disappeared because they could no longer be implemented, given the massive urbanization that resulted from poverty in rural areas and job opportunities in urban areas.
De facto residential integration, despite the Group Areas Act, has taken place in some white suburbs because of the acute shortage of housing in the black urban areas, and the passage of the Free Settlement Areas Act in 1988 gave de jure recognition to some of the racially mixed areas. The shortage of housing has also given rise to vast squatter camps at the outskirts of metropolitan areas all over the country.
The government has said that it may introduce a bill of rights -- something desperately needed in South Africa -- and that it favors holding a conference, a great indaba at which representatives of all the racial groups would be present, to negotiate the political accommodation of black people within the parliamentary structure. Such an assembly is absolutely essential if we are to have a new South Africa with a new goal and without oppression or domination. But whether de Klerk will include the African National Congress and other banned organizations in the indaba, whether he will soon release Nelson Mandela and the other political prisoners, whether he will lift the state of emergency -- all of which black leaders have cited as preconditions for their coming to the negotiating table -- we do not yet know. My crystal ball is cloudy, but I think it's obvious that both sides will have to make concessions if negotiations are to have any hope of success; otherwise the indaba is going to be stillborn.The political revolution that followed was much broader than what Suzman imagined, but her attribution of its stimulus to domestic political and economic factors rather than to foreign sanctions and disinvestment was largely correct.
I think de Klerk intends to try to restore South Africa's credibility in the Western world. I hope he'll get a move on, for I have no doubt that the patience of the Western nations is wearing thin. But I am convinced that sanctions and the threat of further punitive actions notwithstanding, de Klerk will not hand over power to the black majority. He was not elected to do so. However, he will explore every means of bringing blacks into the parliamentary system that falls short of threatening white domination, and he will make incremental changes. I believe he will allow many laws simply to erode by nonprosecution; possibly the Group Areas Act will go that way. Certainly the Separate Amenities Act is already going, and the Johannesburg City Council, which is controlled by the National party, has desegregated all public facilities.
Another important postelection development is that the government is now negotiating with the people's representatives in the urban townships, the leaders of civic associations, whom it had always refused to recognize. It is no longer insisting on negotiating with the people elected under local government ordinances.
I firmly believe that sanctions and disinvestment are ultimately counter-productive. They may result in different political thinking and changes in the political structure, but if they also wreck the economy of South Africa, every South African, white or black, will be hurt. There is no point in inheriting a wasteland. If disinvestment continues and comprehensive sanctions are imposed, South Africa will lose its export markets, and there will be widespread unemployment, mainly among the black population.
In his blog on Cato@Liberty, David Boaz (editor of Toward Liberty) offers his own impressions of Helen Suzman:
In South Africa they knew the difference between liberals and leftists. Plenty of leftists and communists opposed the National Party and its apartheid system. But so did liberals like Suzman, people committed to human rights, freedom of thought, and a market economy. She did not forget her liberalism when apartheid finally fell and the African National Congress came to power. She continued to speak out against repressive policies and the Thabo Mbeki government’s continuing support for Robert Mugabe.It took someone of exceptional fortitude to live Helen Suzman's life. Lesser individuals would have given up -- perhaps even emigrated -- when faced by the sort of challenges she endured.
I loved reading about her quick wit in parliamentary debates. She sent the minister of law and order a postcard from the Soviet Union, saying, “You would like it here. Lots of law and order.” Once she told a government minister to go into the black townships and see their appalling conditions for himself. He would be quite safe, she said, if he went “heavily disguised as a human being.” In a famous exchange a certain minister shouted: “You put these questions just to embarrass South Africa overseas.” To which she coolly replied: “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa – it is your answers.” When an Afrikaner in Parliament sneered at her Jewish roots and asked what her ancestors were doing when his were bringing the Bible to the “savages,” she snapped, ”They were writing the Bible.”
The fact that she was the lone opposition MP for so many years is remarkable enough; that she was able to persuade others to join her and engage in politics for the purpose of liberalizing South Africa's laws and regulations, despite little evidence of potential success, is inspirational. She may have been "one voice" but it was her voice, not that of her opponents, that prevailed.