First, just so you know, I have never been there. And, although I have met a number of South Africans, I have never really talked to them about the country. What I know, I know from 50 years or so of news stories, articles and books. And what a weird, and depressing, place it must be. Even the great things about the country (the weather, the life of the wealthy portion of the population, and so forth) seem depressing, because they are surrounded and supported by so much that is wrong.
And today, when the law no longer permits, much less requires, discrimination based on race or class, the country is still a mess and, in some ways, even more of a mess, with high crime rates and AIDs rates.
The first book I ever read about South Africa was Cry the Beloved Country, which I re-read this year and wrote about not long ago. This set the stage for my general sadness, thinking about the place, although the book was written more than 60 years ago, before ‘apartheid’ became official governmental policy. Then, maybe 15 or 20 years ago, I read Joseph Lelyveld’s Move Your Shadow, another eye opening book, written by the New York Times reporter on the spot (and later NYT executive editor), which showed not only the tragedy of the apartheid system, but also the absurdity of it all. (Lelyveld’s book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1986.) More recently, I read Mark Mathabane’s African Women, the extraordinary story of three generations of women in his family in South Africa, and what they had to go through. These are three extraordinary books.
I am not sure I would place In No Uncertain Terms, Helen Suzman’s memoir, in the same category. She does not have the same writing skill as the others. But she also has a story to tell, and her book tells it well.
Suzman, who is still living in her early 90s, was a member of the South African parliament for 36 years. Coming from a prominent Johannesburg Jewish family, trained as an economist who spent a decade or more teaching at Witwatersrand University, Suzman was elected to parliament from the liberal Houghton district as a member of the official opposition party, but soon resigned with several others from that party to form the Progressive Party. The official opposition, they thought, was too much official, and not enough opposition.
Unfortunately, in the next elections, she was the only Prog to be elected to parliament and her lonely career as a 100% dyed in the wool opponent to apartheid and any form of discrimination began.
There was apparently a facet of South African law that served her well. A member of parliament could say whatever they wanted during parliamentary proceedings, their statements would be published in the official records, and they could be reproduced and discussed in the media. Thus, while others were being ‘banned’, or having their passports confiscated, or being thrown in prison, Helen Suzman continued to talk. In addition, her passport was always in her purse, so she made many trips to Europe and the U.S., and to most of the African countries, places where other South Africans just did not go.
She appears to have accomplished quite a bit when seeking justice for individuals. She visited political prisoners as often as she was allowed. Her description of South African prisons, including Robbins Island, are fascinating. And, even when the black liberation movement distrusted all whites, she seems to have been trusted, although her politics and the politics of the black liberation leaders did not always conform to each other. And, although she had many fans in Europe and the United States, she and they were not always on the same page either. For one thing, she was against sanctions against South Africa as being counter-productive, although in the end she appears to give them some credit.
But her primary characteristic, in addition to abnormally thick skin, was her impertinence in dealing with her fellow parliamentarians, who called her a Communist (which she never was), while she called them worse. It almost seemed like a silly game. One example: a Nationalist (those were the bad guys) started a parliamentary pronouncement, by saying “I don’t think Mrs. Suzman cares for me”, or something to that effect, and she shouted out something like “Don’t care for you? I abhor you!”. And then there was the National party member who hissed “Communist, humanist” every time she spoke.
The book was written in 1994, which was after President de Klerk abolished apartheid, but before the elections which made Nelson Mandela president. It would be interesting to know what she thinks of the succeeding events.