A voice for freedom savors her victory

April 21, 1994|By Michael Hill | Michael Hill,Johannesburg Bureau of The Sun

JOHANNESBURG, SOUTH AFRICA — This is one in a series of occasional articles about South Africa's first multiracial election to be held next week. JOHANNESBURG, South Africa -- At 76, Helen Suzman has a mischievous glint in her eye, letting you know that, whatever the hardships, at least a part of her enjoyed her role as official pain-in-the-neck to the masters of apartheid.

Now that the fight against apartheid is largely won, the liberal Democratic Party she symbolized has become somewhat co-opted. The governing National Party has adopted most of its posi- tions and dominates white voters while blacks have flocked to the African National Congress (ANC), leaving the DP hoping for 10 percent in next week's vote.

But Mrs. Suzman has enough reason for satisfaction.

"I'm just amazed that I survived to see this tremendous transformation from a really authoritarian state to a country which is to become a normal democracy," she said on the eve of South Africa's first nonracial elections.

"I honestly didn't think I would live to see it.

"This has been achieved without a coup d'etat or a revolution which has been the pattern in African states. I don't really care who launches these changes as long as they come about and as long as thereafter there is maintenance of democratic principles."

4 Mrs. Suzman is a virtual legend in South Africa.

For 13 of her 36 years in Parliament, she was the lone voice of opposition to apartheid whose sharp verbal skewers penetrated even the toughest hides of the white majority.

She retired from Parliament in 1989, just before the final changes leading to next week's election. Currently, she is on the Independent Electoral Commission which is putting on the election.

Though some have claimed her presence in Parliament during the apartheid years gave a democratic veneer to a totalitarian reality, most agree that her ability to shine a light into the dark corners of apartheid was at least helpful, perhaps heroic. "The point is that I used the access . . . to great effect," she said in an interview in her home in a suburb north of Johannesburg.

"All those people who criticized me, especially those anti-apartheid people overseas -- you know how vicious they can be, especially about white liberals, they hated us more than they hated the government -- they used every one of the answers that I got to questions in Parliament for their cause.

"They were really much worse than the Nats," she said, referring to the National Party that imposed apartheid in 1948, fine-tuning and tinkering with it right up until the party abandoned it four years ago.

The liberal opposition that ultimately coalesced into the Democratic Party always dreamed of an apartheid-free South Africa with universal suffrage; in other words, exactly the country now coming into being.

But that dream coming true has become something of a political nightmare for the DP.

Finding a role

"What is that old curse, 'May all you wish for come true?' I think that's what happened to us," said Tony Leon, head of the party in the Johannesburg area.

"For years, we were a party of convergence. Now that convergence has happened," he said.

"You could say that convergence succeeded beyond our wildest expectations," said Dr. Zacharias de Beer, the national leader of the DP.

"That having happened, the Nats having copied virtually the whole of our policy and the ANC having copied a good deal of it, the school of thought arises why do we need you guys?" said Mr. De Beer.

Finding its role in the new South Africa has troubled the DP during this campaign.

"In South Africa, with its heavy system of racial discrimination, liberalism tended to be distorted," Mrs. Suzman said. "Anyone who was prepared to recognize blacks on a equal basis without necessarily giving them equal opportunity was considered liberal.

"The liberal role becomes less clearly defined in a situation where you don't have these obvious inequalities and injustices," she said.

The Democratic Party is still couching itself as a member of the opposition, the party that will carry the torch for civil liberties in a Parliament dominated by the ANC and the National Party.

But many accuse the Democratic Party of supporting liberal values to defend South Africa's economic elite -- who have always made up the bulk of its supporters -- from measures designed to redistribute the country's wealth.

Indeed, the main identity problem in the Democratic Party is in a struggle between traditional social liberals and a new wave of semi-libertarians.

Mrs. Suzman espouses the traditional approach. "The essential thing is that jobs are provided and that welfare is provided," she said.

"One of the great drawbacks is that we have no welfare support system. Whatever government is in power must see that caring for the sick and the old, for support in times of unemployment, must be initiated."

But Mr. Leon, one of the party's young Turks who took over Mrs. Suzman's seat in Parliament after beating her hand-picked choice, has another view.

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