Language of change in South Africa

December 26, 1993|By Antero Pietila

Title: "In No Uncertain Terms"

Author: Helen Suzman

Publisher: Knopf

Length, price: 300 pages, $25


Title: "Nelson Mandela Speaks"

Author: Nelson Mandela

Publisher: Pathfinder

Length, price: 296 pages, $18.95 (paperback) As South Africa moves toward black rule, Helen Suzman represents a courageous past that will inevitably disappear. The question is: Will the political philosophy of non-racialism and conciliation espoused by Nelson Mandela fare any better?

One of the political realities of South Africa for the past decades has been that there were only two movements that counted -- the National Party, which created a strict apartheid system, and the African National Congress, the continent's oldest black liberation movement.

This, of course, is gross oversimplification. Segregation and racial discrimination had been practiced on a wide scale before the National Party took power in 1948. The ANC, an overwhelmingly black organization, does not advocate black-power philosophy but has always believed in non-racialism.

Moreover, the political spectrum has seldom been that easily defined. Over the past four decades, the number of bit players has been impressive.

A wide array of front organizations represented the ANC spirit, while the congress itself was banned. On the white side, token opposition groups of varying gradations existed. Then there was Helen Suzman, a member of Parliament for 36 consecutive years and the only opposition representative for 13 of the grimmest apartheid years.

Helen Suzman was an odd politician. She never lived within the wealthy -- and largely Jewish -- Johannesburg district she represented; she seldom did ordinary constituent work. Instead, she became the only voice South Africa's non-whites had in Cape Town after their token representation was ended.

Her concern for, and advocacy of, non-whites made her an implacable enemy in the eyes of the government. "Dubbed a 'sickly humanist' or a dangerous subversive, I was frequently urged to 'go back' to Moscow, or Ghana, or to Israel," she writes.

While she had many admirers among foreign liberals, she had her detractors. While U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, Andrew Young was quoted as saying that she "is the only South African I can't get along with. I can deal with cold hatred but I can't stand paternal liberalism."

Indeed, critics in the anti-apartheid movement often took the uncharitable view that Helen Suzman was the most devious of the apartheid regime's collaborators because her work gave credibility to a Parliament that otherwise might have been totally discredited. (Nelson Mandela refers to that dilemma in the foreword, when he writes: "Without apologizing for using the South African parliamentary process, Helen's participation in opposing the complete absence of democracy in South Africa under the National Party rule must be applauded.")

When Mrs. Suzman finally retired in 1991, a rare official portrait was commissioned by Parliament. She wonders whether it will ** survive in the new South Africa -- or whether it will be relegated to the cellar.

Helen Suzman is 76, Nelson Mandela is 75. It is a measure of Mrs. Suzman's detachment from the anti-apartheid movement that they met for the first time in 1967. Mr. Mandela, who would become the leading symbol of black liberation, was in prison for treason. Mrs. Suzman was on her first visit to Robben Island, the notorious prison colony off Cape Town's shark-infested waters.

This illustrates the weakness of the Suzman book. She was a an important and courageous fighter in Parliament, but was essentially an anomaly. She can offer no insights to the National Party and its internal intrigues, nor can she shed light to the existence and transformation of the anti-apartheid movement during the years the ANC was banned. In the end, hers is an interesting but somewhat disappointing book.

This collection of Nelson Mandela's speeches covers the time from his release from prison in 1991 to the past summer. A man whose television delivery has captivated millions is as captivating on paper.

What is remarkable about these speeches is how Mr. Mandela can cater to the conflicting interests of totally different audiences -- from U.S. Congress to a Fidel Castro rally in Cuba -- without sounding insincere or unprincipled. The reason appears to be that while his emphases change, he refuses to deny certain basic facts or to apologize for them, such as the ANC's long alliance with the South African Communist Party.

Mr. Mandela's speeches eloquently summarize the ANC's goal TTC of forging a new, non-racial South Africa. If it can be created as a workable system, it would be a unique political system in all of Africa because he lists the following issues as non-negotiable: .. one person, one vote; a united South Africa; the liberation of women and the protection of fundamental human rights.

Nelson Mandela represents the thinking of a generation of ANC leaders whose number is rapidly dwindling. As it gets closer to assuming power, the ANC will experience an inevitable change in generational leadership. This is likely to result in many changes in its doctrine as well. The Mandela speeches offer a benchmark against which changes in the ANC can be measured.

Mr. Pietila is an editorial writer at The Sun. He was the paper's correspondent in South Africa from 1980-83.

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