Opposition politics had a perception problem right from the start in democratic South Africa. Understandably, it is harder to tell which side of history you are on when you are in opposition to a majority government following hundreds of years of a privileged minority franchise. To be in opposition was to be in opposition to the liberators.
Helen Suzman was a lone voice in parliament for 13 years, dissenting against such legislation as the Terrorism Act of 1967, which introduced indefinite detention without trial. Despite her controversial opposition to sanctions, likening their effect on the South African economy to “curing the disease but killing the patient,” her parliamentary record over 36 years of opposing apartheid is a tale of 36 years on the right side of history. It is remarkable, then, that at the denouement of that lifelong struggle, Suzman’s response was not one of contentment and resignation.
In 1991, Suzman delivered an address as President of the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR), titled “Holding the High Ground”. She was speaking at a time when liberal values had triumphed, at least in the institutional framework of the new South Africa. Yet her message on holding the ground was not one of self-congratulation, but of ceaseless liberal vigilance:
“Although liberal values have triumphed in South Africa, the role of liberals remains. Liberals in the period ahead have a vital role to play in speaking out against abuses of power or coercive political behaviour, just as strongly as they spoke out against abuses of power when such abuses came from the right, rather than the left.”
One might think it was hardly the time to warn against abuses of power just when power was bowing to the will of the people. On 2 February 1990 FW de Klerk announced radical reforms, including lifting the State of Emergency, unbanning over 30 organisations, and releasing political prisoners. By 1991 several apartheid laws had been repealed, including the Group Areas Act, the Land Acts and the Population Registration Act. In 1991, when Suzman spoke of enduring vigilance, the new democratic era was in the first stage of being ushered in. It was most counter-intuitive to adopt a vigilant position precisely at the moment of looming euphoria.
The feeling that the opposition, mainly the liberal opposition, was popping all the balloons before the party had even started has endured. But it is alarming to consider how much smaller the opposition space in South Africa would be today if the initial instinct had not been to joust and jostle as fiercely with the new government as that of the old, and Suzman was integral to setting the tone. She was labelled “a vicious little cat” by PW Botha; decades later, the Democratic Party (DP), in the first years of South Africa’s democracy, was no wallflower despite its size. Writing for the Mail & Guardian in 1998 Howard Barrell wrote: “… the real leader of the opposition is Tony Leon of the Democratic Party. Seven DP MPs make their National Party counterparts look like 80 feather dusters”.
Helen Suzman would have been 100-years-old today. This is not exactly a tribute, but a reminder of her fighting spirit. Much of her life in opposition was spent in the service of fighting for equal opportunities for all South Africans. Liberals in South Africa have long been burdened with the connotations of two words in that sentence: “opposition” and “fighting”. This is not a favourable brand in a new dispensation that at least rhetorically values unity and harmony. It is unsurprising therefore that reflection on the legacy of Helen Suzman has often been wrapped up quite closely with Nelson Mandela; in fact one of her most iconic images has to be the portrayal of her in an embrace with Mandela. But, hopefully, 23 years into democracy, her legacy no longer requires Nelson Mandela as the foil which grants it legitimacy.
It is difficult to think of a time since 1994 when an opposition in fighting form was more necessary. Yet at their most divisive moments South Africans tend to clamour around the idea of unity. This is both a weakness and a strength. The Fagan Commission put it crudely in saying, “we need them and they need us”, and recent polling from the IRR continues to support the view that South Africans are of common mind about the need to work together. But unity begins to traipse the boundaries of uncritical populism when unity of purpose becomes unity of mind and action.
We need to trust in the resilience of that unifying purpose; of a society for all South Africans, to carry us through the period towards 2019 of a much needed no-holds-barred electoral contest. This is a contest that must be premised on the contestation of ideas and uncomfortable realities; including the need for a transfer of governing power in order for South Africa to mature into a plural democracy, and to escape the political patronage facilitated by one-party dominance. The road to 2019 will make demands on all of us; an opposition prepared to take the high ground above the populist low ground, as Suzman envisioned, and a country at ease with the sunset of liberation governance. DM
Gwen Ngwenya is the COO of the IRR – a think tank that promotes political and economic freedom
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