The following speech was delivered at Parliament in Cape Town on 9 November by DA Leader Mmusi Maimane, to celebrate the life of Helen Suzman who was born 100 years ago this week.
Ladies and gentlemen
Every day, as I approach my office from the stairwell on the second floor of the Marks Building in Parliament, the first thing I see is a life-sized portrait of Helen Suzman hanging on the wall of the small foyer outside my office.
From this position she has a view down almost 100m of Marks Building corridor, and bears witness to a sizeable portion of the DA Caucus’s comings and goings.
Even from way down the corridor, you know it’s her. There’s no mistaking that formidable look that broke the spirit of many a National Party MP in the National Assembly.
In the portrait, there’s a hint of a smile on her face, but only enough to reassure you that she’s a kind person. Everything else about her – the upright posture, the elegant wardrobe, the neat hair and the determined look in her eye – tell you she means business.
It’s a beautiful representation of a woman who was at once fierce and gentle, combative and generous.
She may have passed on more than eight years ago but, much like her painting outside my office, her presence lives on in all we do as a party and in everything we stand for.
Every value we call our own in the DA can be traced back to the principles Helen fought for over her 36 year-long career as a Member of Parliament. Simple justice, equal opportunity and human rights – what she called “the indispensable elements in a democratic society”.
She never compromised on these principles. Year after year, decade after decade, she was as steady and dependable as a compass. And she was unashamedly liberal. In her words:
“I am proud to acknowledge that I am liberal who adheres to old-fashioned liberal values such as the rule of law, universal franchise, free elections, a free press, free association, guaranteed civil rights and an independent judiciary.”
And I am proud to say that these very same values still form the foundation of the DA today.
Much has been written about the fact that, for the first 13 years that the Progressive Party served in Parliament, Helen was the party’s only MP – a lone voice of opposition to the juggernaut of the National Party government.
But for six of these years she was also the only woman in Parliament. And she was Jewish. This made her a triple target for vindictive attacks by her many opponents.
The insults and abuse hurled at her every day by members of the House – blatantly chauvinist, racist and anti-Semitic utterances – were meant to throw her off her stride. They were meant to intimidate her into silence.
Had they been aimed at anyone else, this might have worked. But against Helen Suzman they had the opposite effect. They strengthened her resolve and made her more determined to fight for what she knew was right.
And although she detested all forms of bullying she didn’t consider herself a victim either, as she would explain in her own words:
“I am provocative, and I admit this. It isn’t as if I’m only on the receiving end, a poor, frail little creature. I can be thoroughly nasty when I get going, and I don’t pull my punches.”
Helen was feisty and undaunted and she would give as good as she got, although her retorts never sunk to the level of those attacking her. Instead she applied her razor sharp wit to rattle and disarm her bullies.
All 400 Members of our current Parliament would do well to study the way Helen conducted herself in the House. Her quiet and calm interactions were far more devastating to her opponents than any amount of shouting, heckling and violence.
But more than her demeanour in Parliament, we could all learn an immense amount from the values that drove her to do her outstanding work.
She was not a grandstander. She was not an egocentric politician eager to cut ribbons and hog the cameras. She was not driven by personal ambition and she had no interest in the trappings of wealth and power that have cast such a dark shadow over our political landscape today.
No, Helen Suzman was a true servant of the people. For her, representing voters in Parliament meant one thing only: an opportunity to make a difference in society.
Being an MP – even if she was the only dissenting voice in a sea of Apartheid defenders – meant she had a platform to express her views. A platform protected by a Westminster parliamentary system, much to the dismay of her enemies.
As an MP she also had access to people and places ordinary South Africans couldn’t reach. This saw her return over and over to prisons where political prisoners were kept, or townships where the brutality of the Apartheid government was meted out far away from the world’s cameras.
And when she would go to Robben Island and meet with the political prisoners there, it was not merely to visit them. She went there to fight for them. Because she understood that her job as an MP was to defend the vulnerable from the powerful.
She was free, but they were not. And to her this meant that she had a responsibility to help fight for their freedom.
Much has also been said about her “go see for yourself” approach, which drove her to find the truth rather than rely on the word of others. But she did more than simply see. She also listened. To her it was absolutely vital to hear people and understand their point of view.
Driven by her desire for justice, equality and human rights, she fought every day for millions who had no other political representation in the country’s legislature.
She fought the Sabotage Act, the Terrorism Act, the 90-Day Detention Law. She opposed the Group Areas Act and the Mixed Marriages Act. She fought for the rights of prisoners who had no one else to turn to, personally replying to hundreds of their letters.
And she asked questions in Parliament. Up to 200 a year. Questions about pass law arrests, questions about forced removals, questions about prison conditions, questions about riot police brutality.
She asked questions that left the ruling party deeply embarrassed and incredibly angry. She knew this was her power over them.
At the time she received high praise from individuals involved in the struggle. Albert Luthuli famously wrote to her in 1963 with the words: “Forever remember you are a bright star in a dark chamber,” also adding that “posterity will hold you in high esteem”.
Nelson Mandela described her visits to Robben Island in his biography, Long Walk to Freedom with these words:
“Mrs. Suzman was one of the few, if not the only, Member of Parliament who took an interest in the plight of political prisoners. It was an odd and wonderful sight to see this courageous woman peering into our cells and strolling around our courtyard. She was the first and only woman ever to grace our cells.”
The respect she earned from struggle figures for her principled stance against the injustice of Apartheid was heartfelt and unconditional.
Today her footprints are everywhere in the DA. She left behind a dogged determination in the pursuit of goals and the driving of issues.
She taught us to focus on what needs to be achieved, and not get distracted by sideshows. She showed us the virtue of sticking to your principles.
These principles left her no choice but to leave the racial equivocating United Party in 1959. The same principles got her through 13 long years alone in the old National Assembly.
She imprinted on this party the values that guided her through almost four decades of service to her country as an MP.
Values like Simple Justice, where everyone stands equal before the law – whether you are an ordinary citizen or the President of the country.
Values like Equal Opportunities, where your path in life is not determined by the circumstances of your birth or the colour of your skin.
Values like the protection and advancement of Human Rights for all.
Values like the pursuit of a truly non-racial South Africa, guarded by the Constitution and by the Rule of Law.
It is an immense honour for me to pay tribute to Helen Suzman as we celebrate what would have been her hundredth birthday.
She shares this centenary year with OR Tambo, and given the dominant binary narrative about the struggle for democracy in South Africa, it is not so surprising that her significant contribution to our democracy has been largely overshadowed by celebration of his life.
But this only means that we must actively and constantly keep her legacy alive. We must not allow her story to become faded with time and airbrushed from history.
The painting of Helen hanging outside my office almost met this fate. Commissioned and paid for by her friends and colleagues in 1989, it hung here in Parliament until the mid-90s when it was taken down by the ANC and locked away in a store room.
Several years later it was rescued by my predecessor, Tony Leon, and brought back to the Marks Building – initially to the DP caucus room which was named in her honour, and ultimately to its current location outside the office of the Leader.
I find her presence there comforting. She connects us to our history, and she reminds us that we can be stronger and more impactful than we often think.
And I’m sure that, if we could ask her today, she’d say that the best way to honour her memory would not be a year of celebrations and platitudes, but rather a determined focus to finish the job she started.
And that’s precisely what we intend to do.
But to do so, we will need to take a leaf from Helen Suzman’s book. We will need to fight every day, like she did, for the people who have no one else looking out for them.
The 30 million South Africans living below the poverty line.
The 9.4 million South Africans who cannot find work.
Our job is not to sit in Parliament and fight only for people who think like us, speak like us or look like us. Our job is to defend the vulnerable – the people who are not yet free.
Our job is to articulate a vision of South Africa where the excluded and the marginalised know they have a future worth fighting for.
The survival of our country will depend on our ability to do this job.