Jane Flanagan, telegraph.co.uk, May 16
Helen Suzman, for years the lone anti-apartheid voice in the South African parliament, has turned her fire on the country’s ANC government for being “anti-white” and for abandoning the country’s poorest blacks.
As South Africa celebrates the passing of a decade since its first free elections, Mrs Suzman has cast an unexpected shadow over the party — declaring that parliamentary democracy was healthier under the apartheid regime.
As she sat in the study of her home in one of Johannesburg’s smartest white suburbs last week, the veteran human rights campaigner confessed that she was disappointed by the African National Congress government which she had worked so tirelessly to get into power.
“I had hoped for something much better,” said Mrs Suzman, 86. “The poor in this country have not benefited at all from the ANC. This government spends ‘like a drunken sailor’. Instead of investing in projects to give people jobs, they spend millions buying weapons and private jets, and sending gifts to Haiti.”
Dressed in a blue blouse, trousers and matching jewellery, Mrs Suzman’s tiny frame became powerfully animated as she discussed the subject of Zimbabwe and President Thabo Mbeki’s failure to curb the excesses of his neighbour, President Robert Mugabe.
“Mugabe has destroyed that country while South Africa has stood by and done nothing. The way Mugabe was feted at the inauguration last month was an embarrassing disgrace. But it served well to illustrate very clearly Mbeki’s point of view.”
She gestured fiercely with the manicured middle finger of her right hand and added: “Mugabe has done that to the whites, and I think that is exactly what Mbeki admires about him. Don’t think for a moment that Mbeki is not anti-white — he is, most definitely. His speeches all have anti-white themes and he continues to convince everyone that there are two types of South African — the poor black and the rich white.
“Meanwhile, he doesn’t do what he should be doing, which is improving the lives of the people who voted for him. Mbeki’s attitudes to Mugabe and to HIV/Aids are the reason we are not getting the levels of foreign investment that we should.”
Mrs Suzman was a lecturer in economic history before beginning her political career in 1953 as an MP for the United Party. Six years later she founded the Progressive Party, and for 13 years was its sole MP. She was a regular visitor to Nelson Mandela and other ANC leaders during their long incarceration on Robben Island.
Between 1961 and 1974 she bombarded the ruling National Party government with parliamentary questions about the detailed workings of apartheid: forced removals, racial classification, convictions for pass offences, immorality laws and Bantu education. All were recorded in South Africa’s Hansard — two rows of which now line her study walls. “That’s my life in there,” she said, her tiny arm sweeping along the shelves. “Of course, it would never be possible today to ask as many questions as I did.”
One reason is the abandonment of the first-past-the-post system under South Africa’s post-apartheid constitution, she said. “I used to be a fan of proportional representation, but I am not at all now I have seen it in action. Debate is almost non-existent and no one is apparently accountable to anybody apart from their political party bosses. It is bad news for democracy in this country. Even though we didn’t have a free press under apartheid, the government of that day seemed to be very much more accountable in parliament.”
Her energy and relentless criticism of the apartheid regime was formidable, and earned her anti-Semitic and sexist attacks in parliament, where for six years she was the only woman politician — referred to as “the lady from Lithuania”. She retired from politics in 1989 with 28 honorary doctorates and two nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Her probing continues unabated through the work of The Helen Suzman Foundation, which scrutinises elections, voter choice and the conduct of political parties in South Africa, Zimbabwe and other African countries. “I am supposed to be retired, but my diary is as full as ever,” she said with a smile.
Around the study, photographs of her with Mr Mandela, Hillary Clinton and parliamentary colleagues jostle with family snapshots. Like many other white South Africans, Mrs Suzman has seen her two children move overseas. A system of positive discrimination and labour laws that impose strict quota systems on employers have led thousands of skilled whites to pursue their careers elsewhere.
“The employment laws are completely unrealistic,” she said. The previous education system, she said, left a generation of black children without the skills for the jobs into which they are now being pushed.
“You cannot overcome that in only 10 years. It will take at least another generation before young people are properly qualified. It is increasingly hard for young white people to find jobs, and I can understand why white parents are worried about the future,” she said.
Perhaps conscious that she might be misconstrued, she added firmly: “For all my criticisms of the current system, it doesn’t mean that I would like to return to the old one. I don’t think we will ever go the way of Zimbabwe, but people are entitled to be concerned. I am hopeful about any future for whites in this country — but not entirely optimistic.”