The new biography of Helen Suzman is a timely reminder of how she spoke truth to power in support of the defining human rights issue of her generation - and offers surprising lessons for us to consider for the defining one of ours.
My previous column examined the distinction between the narrow view of Israel as a defined state and the expanded reality of it; the latter, I argued, being the more appropriate prism against which to judge its actions. The recently concluded Israel Apartheid Week focused on similar themes as it lent its support to Palestinian people living in the occupied territories of Gaza and the West Bank. Unlike those Palestinians scattered away from their historical homeland in places like Jordan and the UAE, those remaining in the territories may not technically be in exile – but not being in exile does not imply a sense of belonging or a sense of place. Rather, for them life hovers somewhere between the two states of exile and of belonging- a purgatory of a life suspended. Palestinians’ rights are few, their access to resources circumscribed, their ability to organise politically curtailed, their dignity trampled on for decades.
But what of their responsibilities? The question is often asked of why they resort to violence, of tunnelling in contraband missiles and firing them on innocent Israelis across the border? Why do they insist on voting into power a militant, unrepentant organisation like Hamas which until recently had as its chief aim the complete destruction of the state of Israel?
I recently found some food for thought in an unrelated place. A new biography of the wonderful Helen Suzman by the former British Ambassador to South Africa, Lord Renwick, has just been published, and in reading it I’ve spent the last few days in the pleasant company of her razor-sharp wit and fierce intelligence in exposing the worst excesses of Apartheid to the world. The title of the book, Bright Star in a Dark Chamber, takes its name from the phrase Chief Albert Luthuli heaped upon her in 1963, when, as he lamented, “the lights of liberty…are going out one by one.” Helen Suzman was a global giant in the field of human rights and human dignity – “simple justice and equal opportunity…those things well worth fighting for,” as she called it.
I was blessed to have known Helen Suzman since my childhood. She was a close family friend, my father having served with her in Parliament. That ferocious courage was constantly evident, I remember thinking. Late in her life, in 2006, Israel had attacked Lebanon in retaliation to missiles having being launched from there, and Helen had supported it. Staying at our home in Durban, my mother arranged for her and another stalwart, Fatima Meer, to meet, where amongst other things they discussed the invasion. As she recalls, “Over the next while these two doyens engaged with each other, and even though they had different opinions on whether war was necessitated or not, I took comfort in how they each skilfully and wisely sought common ground – the common ground of wanting lasting peace.”
How does Helen Suzman’s fight for justice in South Africa have linkages with the current Palestinian issue and answering the question of whether it is their violent behaviour which is halting the march to lasting progress?
As Lord Renwick points out, the constant theme of Helen’s activism was in warning the government that, far from contributing to the country’s security, the laws they were passing in defiance of the interests and wishes of the population were storing up immense resentment, resistance and trouble for the future. In 1963, six whites were murdered by members of Poqo, an extremist faction of the PAC, and there were riots by the coloured community who were in sympathy with Poqo in Paarl. Rather than decrying the outcome of violence and using it to condone the implementation of harsher punishment against the perpetrators, Suzman instead had the foresight to look at the underlying symptom of the violence – and found provocation to be at the root of the underlying problems. By denying black people rights of political expression and economic opportunity, she told Parliament, the government had left such people unable to express their frustration in any other way except by violent means.
“As long as there are people who are denied rights of political expression… who live the barrack-like sort of life that the Africans live in this country…so long will individuals and groups of individuals find some means of expressing their frustration. The government has left such people with few measures other than violent means. It refuses to understand that if non-violent protests are not allowed, they will be replaced by violent protests. If moderate leaders are silenced, they will be replaced by extremist ones.” Later, she took the politically courageous move of quoting the banned Nelson Mandela in Parliament, when he said that “we have warned repeatedly that the government, by resorting continually to violence, will breed in this country counter-violence among the people.”
Lord Renwick’s biography is thought-provoking and a timely reminder of how to speak words of truth to power. I hope that it finds many readers in South Africa- both as a tool to remember her courage as well as to consider her universal message for other parts of the world. Over half a century after Helen Suzman’s words filled the unreceptive echoing walls of Parliament, I found many parallels between her warnings in South Africa and the underlying reasons for the simmering hatred in Palestine. We would do well to heed them. DM
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Kalim Rajab is a director of the New National Assurance Company, SA's largest empowered insurance company. He previously worked in the diamond industry, and was educated at UCT and Oxford. He writes in his personal capacity about SA, current events, film appreciation and culture. Catch him on twitter at @kalimrajab
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