Friday, January 02, 2009

Helen Suzman: 1917 - 2009

It is my sad duty to report that Helen Suzman died on Thursday in her home in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Mrs. Suzman was well-known for her persistent opposition to the inhumane system of apartheid in South Africa. Mrs. Suzman was a proud liberal, a proud classical liberal who advocated free markets, individual rights and limited government. As such she was hated by the socialists who controlled the National Party which ruled South Africa.

The National Party, which first came to power with the support of the Labour Party and the Communist Party, had rigged the electoral system so that rural white votes counted more than votes within the cities. This meant that even when a majority of white voters opposed the National Party it was still winning elections and controlling the state. One result was that for many years Mrs. Suzman was the only voice against aparthied in parliament.

With the media tightly controlled the only place the truth could be revealed was in the halls of parliament where Suzman enjoyed parliamentary privilege and couldn’t be censored. The New York Times, in reporting her death, gives a bad interpretation of South African history. They write that apartheid “would ultimately be ended not by a small band of white dissenters, but by the more powerful forces of the black freedom struggle and external political pressure.”

They are wrong, stupendously wrong. Yes, the freedom struggle played a major role in bringing liberation to black South Africans. But “external political pressure” was almost meaningless. I spent time in South Africa during the world-wide boycott against the country and these pressures had little impact on the country. The simple reason was that everything that was forbidden to be sold in South Africa was on sale there. Africa is a corrupt continent and all the other African countries were conduits to ship goods to South Africa.

I use a Mac and Apple was boycotting South Africa. Yet I had no problem buying Apple products and getting my Mac repaired when that was necessary. I even bought replacement computers there when I upgraded. All of it came into the country via other nations. In fact, the external pressure that the Times refers to hardened the opinion of lots of whites who continued to back the National Party to spite the world. The boycott of South Africa was as counterproductive as is the boycott of Cuba. Trade embargoes are bad.

And I remember well the graffiti I saw on the walls in Soweto where the urban poor lived. The signs were appeals for jobs not embargoes.

What ultimately undermined apartheid and destroyed it were two things. One is that the economic climate had changed. Originally apartheid was pushed by the farmers and the white trade unions. Both wanted to keep black rural workers from migrating to the city. A decrease in rural labor pushed up labor prices for the famers. An increase of competition for jobs in the cities pushed down wages. So the farmers and trade unions cooperated to keep blacks in the “homelands” and away from the urban areas.

But as less and less of the economy was dominated by agriculture the power of the farmers declined. And the increase of non-union buisnesses in urban areas demanded more labor than can be supplied by the white population alone. Enitre areas of Johannesburg started ignoring the apartheid laws. The Hillbrow section of Johannesburg, where I had an apartment, was quite illegally integrated. Landlords had the choice of renting to blacks or having a vacant apartment. They choose profit over “race”. The best academic treatment of this can be found in Merle Lipton’s Capitalism and Apartheid. For a honest look, by a Communist, of the role of the Left in forming apartheid read Time Longer Than Rope by Edward Roux. He also covers some of this in his biography of communist trade unionist S.P. bunting.

Another important factor in the end of National Party rule was the collapse of the Soviet Union. The Soviets were funding communist terrorist groups in Angola, Namibia and Mozambique. This Soviet interventionism in the region cemented the will of the Nationalists to stay in power. When the Soviet system fell apart the National Party finally felt it was safe to negotiate a transfer of power without risking communist domination. (Whether such domination was likely is not the issue, whether they thought it was, is.)

Helen never stopped her criticism of aprtheid and its evil and she never backed down even though her life was constantly in danger from the police state that formed to protect apartheid. She was equally opposed to the trade sanctions however. As she told demonstrators in the United States that while sanctions made them feel good she couldn’t see “how wrecking the economy of the country will ensure a more stable and just society.”

Suzman used her position in parliament to visit prisoners like Nelson Mandela. Her regular and constant visits to high profile prisoners is probably one reason that many of them survived their time in prison.

Suzman remained a vocal advocate of classical liberal values throughout her life. In 2002 the Liberal International awarded her their International Freedom Prize while Robert Mugabe proclaimed her an “enemy of the state.”

The Helen Suzman Foundation continues her advocacy. I see that a good friend, Temba Nolutshungu is a director of the Foundation now and that one of the more libertarian members of parliament, Raenette Taljaard is the current Director.

David Boaz, vice president of the Cato Institute wties:
In South Africa they knew the difference between liberals and leftists. Plenty of leftists and communists opposed the National Party and its apartheid system. But so did liberals like Suzman, people committed to human rights, freedom of thought, and a market economy. She did not forget her liberalism when apartheid finally fell and the African National Congress came to power. She continued to speak out against repressive policies and the Thabo Mbeki government’s continuing support for Robert Mugabe. I loved reading about her quick wit in parliamentary debates. She sent the minister of law and order a postcard from the Soviet Union, saying, “You would like it here. Lots of law and order.” Once she told a government minister to go into the black townships and see their appalling conditions for himself. He would be quite safe, she said, if he went “heavily disguised as a human being.” In a famous exchange a certain minister shouted: “You put these questions just to embarrass South Africa overseas.” To which she coolly replied: “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa – it is your answers.” When an Afrikaner in Parliament sneered at her Jewish roots and asked what her ancestors were doing when his were bringing the Bible to the “savages,” she snapped, ”They were writing the Bible.”

Suzman exhibited a rare combination of compassion, courage and a commitment to liberty.

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