Monday, January 5, 2009



Sunday Times
Johannesburg, South Africa
Jan 04, 2009

AS I write this tribute to a remarkable woman, whom I loved dearly, a cartoon print of her by legendary New York Review of Books cartoonist David Levine is staring at me, seemingly sensing the sadness surrounding her passing away.

I obtained it as a gift for Helen Suzman’s 90th birthday and she — in her characteristically forthright style — summarily dismissed it as a picture that she thought hideous, declaring how much she preferred Zapiro’s iconic images of her (while thanking me for the thought).

Suzman always knew what she liked and disliked, in the same way as there were no ambiguities or shades of grey for her between right and wrong.

Equally, when her academic research led her deeper into the injustices of labour migration in our country, she had no ambivalence or hesitation in realising that she had a role to play in a complex society marred by injustice, that she would be its “cricket in a thorn tree”, who would speak truth to power with a clear moral purpose in a country that had lost its moral compass.

As she often said: “I had a wonderful opportunity to use the parliamentary stage to bring the world’s attention to what was going on”.

And Suzman became this country’s lioness of parliament, a legendary activist who was always present in communities “seeing for herself” and a meticulous researcher who exposed every bizarre nuance of the social engineering that was apartheid for the world to see and campaign against.

When I first met her in the early ’90s, while still a parliamentary researcher for the then Democratic Party, it was her sincere interest in the people she met, irrespective of rank or standing of station, that struck me most given her own stature and reputation.

It was her clear understanding that only a fundamental improvement in the living conditions of all South Africans would herald real freedom that remained alive to her even as she continued to travel to Soweto and Alexandra, tracing progress and change.

One of my last long conversations with her revolved around how distressed she was at seeing how little change had really come to communities that often were in the same conditions that she recalled from her earliest visits.

She emphasised how we all shared a duty to understand that our very stability as a society was dependent on this crucial lynchpin — change and dignity as core ingredients of freedom.

For Suzman it was an immediate human connection and a focus on human dignity that transcended every other aspect of politics — a quality that served her well as she reached into the hearts and minds of not only her Houghton constituency, but all South Africans who recognised her contribution.

Those South Africans understood that she did what she could with what she had at her disposal to further the cause of dignity and the fight for human rights.

I met Suzman late in her life but she remained actively engaged in South African public life in various bodies and institutions and always had the details of contentious issues at her fingertips.

Suzman still followed the detail in legislative debates and was always ready with a fresh and challenging perspective on any issue.

She remained actively engaged with every aspect of our political dramas and intrigues from Polokwane and the recall of Thabo Mbeki to the formation of the Congress of the People.

As her daughter Frances has reminded us all, she would be sad to have missed the 2009 elections and their outcome, even though she longed for freedom from the frailties that come with age.

It was a rare honour and privilege, as a young parliamentarian in the late ’90s to have the opportunity to revert to Suzman for all manner of advice about public life and the sometimes nasty realities of practical politics.

Reflecting back on how difficult it must have been for her as the sole woman representative in parliament for so many years made the path always seem comparatively much less challenging and daunting.

It is impossible to sum up the life and times of Suzman neatly as they seamlessly cross different periods in our country’s life and path to freedom and democratic governance. On this path Suzman stands out clearly as a reminder of what a single individual can to do to contribute to change by not shying away from the lonely journey that often comes with leadership of her calibre.

Suzman will be remembered for her courage, fortitude, magnanimity and humility — most recently evidenced by her declining the prospect of the renaming of Houghton Drive in her honour.

We will honour her for her unwavering commitment to accountable governance, which she continued to pursue by highlighting the need for some aspect of constituency representation to be included in our electoral system.

For Suzman, this was about government being as close to the people as possible in order to hear their voices directly.

Her sparkling sense of humour, only ever rivalled by the sparkle in her eyes, will be keenly missed by those who had the privilege to have her as a friend and mentor.

It was a sparkle the Nationalist rulers found could evenly be matched by a steely gaze that confronted them across the aisle on matters of morality and principle.

I can already imagine Suzman rolling her eyes at the mere thought that this article had been written at all and for all the fuss about her passing both locally and abroad.

But, with due deference to her misgivings about “honours”, Suzman deserves to be remembered and emulated in meaningful ways that model the clear moral purpose which she pursued in public life and quietly continued in her private life, fielding calls for help from all quarters of our country and often the world.

While our nation’s flags fly at half-mast, our hearts must soar high in remembrance of a woman of unparalleled integrity and conviction.

We must keep a clear vision of her values as we steer our course and continue to build on what she and so many others sacrificed for — a vibrant, multiracial democracy at the southernmost tip of Africa, that the world can take note of for its message of hope.

We must honour Suzman by realising her hope for change and dignity to touch the lives of all who live in this country she loved so passionately.

— Taljaard is director of the Helen Suzman Foundation