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Interview with Lord Robert Renwick about his new book on Helen Suzman.

Indelible Media Team Content Producer Barbara King in conversation with Lord Robin Renwick at the Mt. Nelson Hotel, Cape Town  31 January 2014 about his latest book: “Helen Suzman – Bright Star in a Dark Chamber.”

Click here to view the promo video of the book:


Barbara: Ok so thank you so much for writing about Helen, you know it’s a story that we need to hear, be reminded of, especially for African Oral History. The new generation needs to understand what she went through and I think it’s very, very charming as well.  I understand that you were here in ’87 and you became involved with her and the diplomatic core knew about her. Could you just position her, to the international community who was she?

Robin: Yes! Well it’s, it’s, it’s really quit strange that she should be regarded as a hidden jam because she certainly was a jam but she was the leading parliamentary opponent of Apartheid for 36 years. So why on earth should she be hidden and it is true that, you know the White liberals led by her don’t get as much credit as they very obviously deserve for their efforts to bring down Apartheid and to fight for the rights of people who had no rights throughout all those years… and, and she was the undisputed leader of, of… that movement. She was the undisputed leader of that movement. I mean she had very good colleagues like Colin Eglin and Van Zyl Slabbert who were both extremely effective in their way but they were only there for the last years of this fight, while she was there for 36 years including 13 of them on her own.

Barbara: So in terms of the international press and the diplomatic core and people who would be spreading the word or making policies about what was happening in South Africa. How did you first hear about her, how did she come to the wires or through…

Robin: Well, I think anybody following what was happening in South Africa knew about Helen Suzman and she was seeing to me to be you know, everything that she said, everything she did.  Seemed to me to offer; the best hope that in the end some kind of sanity might prevail. So when I arrived in South Africa the very first, the very first person I aimed to meet was Helen Suzman and I invited her to lunch about 2-3 days after I arrived and as always with Helen even though she gave a very stuck picture of a very bad situation at the time with a thousand of people in detention without trial. The Robin Islander still imprisoned, the exiles still unable to return any, any meal with Helen was sure to end in gales of laughter. And what I tried to do is to write a book which I mean the older generation in South Africa including the Robin Islanders by the way do remember vividly what she did 3 days ago in Johannesburg it was a book party which was adjusted by Ahmed Kathrada it was just about the last surviving real old companion of Mandela and it was a very emotional tribute to what she did for all of them. So this book is intended to, to explain to a younger generation of South Africans in readable form what she did and how she did it and what an incredibly courageous, determined and effective performance it was over her whole, over her whole lifetime.

Barbara: Since ’94 there seems to be a new history that’s why I’m saying it’s a hidden gem.

Robin: Well you, you are right. I mean since ’94 the, the liberation movement arrived in all its glory and has wanted to write history the way it saw and Helen of course knew all these people I mean she was, she was… greatly admired and respected by what I would describe as the lions of the liberation movement that is to say Luthuli, Mandela, Sobukwe, Bram Fischer, Sisulu. They all were huge fans of Helen Suzman and she was of them and she knew better than anybody all the sacrifices these people had made and others like them in the ANC to help to achieve, to help to achieve “one person, one vote” but she did have a different view as to how that is going to be achieved from in particular from the exiled ANC. She was on much closer terms with the internal leaders than with the external leaders obviously and at that time the ANC and the South Africa Communist party were talking about a seizure of power and she didn’t believe that was going to be possible and first of all it would’ve been catastrophic end… and a catastrophic beginning for the new government but she didn’t believe that was all that was going to happen.

She believed in the end there would have to be a negotiation between moderate White leaders and moderate Black leaders and she didn’t believe that… Umkhonto we Sizwe. I mean she understood better than anyone, all the reasons that had led Mandela to found Umkhonto we Sizwe but she didn’t actually think that militarily speaking it was all that effective. The ANC leaders themselves described it as armed propaganda.

So she thought it would be many, many, many more years before Umkhonto could be anything like a …serious challenger South African Defense Force and the paramilitary South African. Please know she found of course because she was visiting him in jail that Mandela agreed with her. Mandela told her explicitly I am ready to negotiate to normalize the situation in this country. Now both she and I made what attempts we could to get P.W Botha to understand that with no success whatever… though we did manage to make progress towards the Namibian settlement even with him, but she told me, which I agreed with her because I was seeing Botha regularly that nothing good was going to happen under him. We had to seek to work with his successors and we both knew F.W. de Klerk well before he became President.

And we both were very hopeful that when he did become president he would set the country on a new course because de Klerk was a civilian politician. He really disliked and so did many of the other Afrikaner leaders outside the government. The militarization of the regime, you know it was being turned into a kind of Latin- American military junta complete with death squads.  So I had very influential Afrikaner friends here at the time who detested that, Anton Rupert, Professor Heins who headed the reformed church, who actually denounced Apartheid as a heresy and was murdered for his pains later on by a right winged extremist and, and Peter de Langer head of the Broederbond was another reformist and Gerald de Kock, head of the Reserve Bank too and the, the younger generation of the National Party MPs the so called verligte NATS, you know who were starting, to Helen’s amusement, she said ‘I just listened to NAT MP make exactly the speech, I made 25 years ago saying the system won’t work, can’t work and it’s going to have to be abandoned.’

Barbara: Do you think it was ever acknowledged by the National Party, those who hackled her for all those years, was there any sort of acknowledgement as you were saying 20 years later they are giving the same speech, did they acknowledge Helen?

Robin: Yes! I mean at the end when, when the Pass Laws had to be abandoned because they were simply unenforceable that was under Botha. A National Party MP called Albert Nothnagle said we have to admit that she was right all along and I don’t think anyone in the history of this country will ever do as much again for human rights as she has done and that was from a NAT MP. Now the fact is even in the worst of times when she was the only person to be elected to the parliament opposing the system. She alone voted against the unlawful you know…banning of the ANC, the sabotage bill and so on everybody else voted for it.

And she said if you ban these organizations they will go underground and it will drive them under ground and there will be more violence not less violence and so on. Nobody accepted that at the time but she told her constitutes at the time, don’t despair quite inevitably time is on our side and in the end, her arguments in the end were unanswerable apart from you know the horrendous human suffering that were caused by these forced removals and every other depressing measure of the Apartheid and as she said in parliament, you pass all these laws and the only one who goes to see what you have done is me because she went to see where this people were being dumped on the veldt in winter, in freezing conditions, in tents with no running water, no facilities, nothing…

You know but she was also an Economist, she believed that this crazy system was contrary to the laws of economics and in the end it was bound to collapse. So some… people said of her you know she, she was armed only with her fierce intelligence biting wit an absolute certainty that she was right and if you want some examples her of biting wit, when John Foster said that he couldn’t see anything wrong with Apartheid, she said well in that case you should try visiting the townships, heavily disguised as a human being and when P.W Botha one day in parliament said I can’t stand her constant nagging it’s like water dripping on a tin roof, if my wife behaved like that I would know what to do with her.

She said well, if you were female he would arrive on a broom stick and this, this humor of biting wit and making fun of this grim forbidding, ruthless and extremely dangerous people was part of her defense mechanism but also it was an extremely effective way of attacking them. Now about Oliver Tambo, Oliver Tambo also was an admirer of Helen Suzman this was not, never publicized at the time by him or me but I used to go to see Oliver Tambo when I was on leave in London, he lived in Highgate at the time. His wife Adelaide used to always welcome me with a huge amount of carrot cake. They were very hospitable people. Tambo was a truly remarkable man, extremely intelligent, very descent, you know it was a great tragedy that by the time he was able to return to South Africa, you know he, he, he already was ill but he, he always spoke very highly of Helen Suzman to me.

And when she went to Lusaka when you know de Klerk had unbanned the ANC and met him there and he gave her you know an extremely warm welcome, which is you know in the historical record. Now what happened after ’94 of course was that she always understood, what she regarded as the many kin nature of the liberation movement she saw within it many people who thought like her wanted justice, wanted “one person, one vote” and then to run the country as best they could.

She didn’t worry about the, the many, many members of the Polit Bureau in the ANC, were actually members also of the South African Communist Party. She didn’t worry about them adopting Marxist system economic policies. She thought they were very unlikely to do that. What, what she did worry about is that some of them had gathered from the Communist Party or accepted from them the doctrine of the primacy of the party over the institutions of the country.

That’s classic Communist doctrine now you know she, she was what she represented wasn’t soft, nice, warm and fuzzy liberalism. What she represented was hard liberalism in fact hard as nails liberalism and you know her values are enshrined in the South African constitution. So what are they as far as she was concerned what they were was simple justice, integrity in public life, service means service not stealing money from the people who are aiming to serve, freedom of the press, independency of the judiciary.

Say when people today say as they do to, to my annoyance, you know there is something wrong with liberalism. What’s wrong with those four principles and when people say, you know we are against liberalism you know. They should be asked, which of those four items are you against? And of course governments you know, liberation movements turned in to ordinary political parties. They start as liberation movements after few years in the office; they are a party like any other party trying to hold on to power. Now they can only do that normally speaking with, with you know with the support of the people undoubtedly to this day the ANC has definitely got majority support as will be demonstrated again I’m sure in the May elections but if it was to be elected next time it is actually going to have to demonstrate that it is really serving the people rather than just you know governing.

Barbara: But for Helen it’s not either than that she fought it was also the Political Party she was involved in, people with her constituency within that party, her colleagues within that party.  I remember in particular she was telling us how upset she was with Tony Leon and what she was leading on, did she get out of too soon… because she told me that she was trying to get another lady in there and then he got everyone to come to the meeting and voted himself in as a party leader.

Robin: Yes! She did… well undoubtedly she left parliament too soon I tried to dissuade her. She was already in her 70s I said look Helen it’s ridiculous for you to leave parliament, you know you are by far the effective member of parliament by, by miles but she did it for a very honorable reason that if she was, she felt that if she delayed it would be very difficult for her friend in her sense, deputy Irene Menel to succeed her in fact she didn’t succeed her because Tony Leon got himself adopted you know fair enough. I mean he, he became an effective leader of the party but Helen you, you are absolutely right I mean she was very intransigent, Helen Suzman.

You know she, she made this famous statement at the time when she was extremely unpopular with the most of the White population at this country, you know like everyone else I longed to be loved but I’m not prepared to make any concessions whatsoever and you know personal tolerance was not her strongest feature. Not only did she not suffer fools gladly, she wouldn’t suffer them at all and she was you know extremely determined with dealing with her own colleagues. One of the things for instance she did which horrified them all once a year she would propose the decriminalization of dagga not because…marijuana not because she supported dagga but because it’s a cultural habit in the rural areas of South Africa and every year thousands of people were arrested for the possession of this weed and she didn’t want them to be all arrested year after year, her colleagues were horrified because it made them look as if their party was quote soft on drugs. Did that deter her? Not a bit. You know again and again under Apartheid she moved the abolishing of the death penalty you know it was voted down by everybody but in the end she won, it’s in the South African constitution.

Barbara: What was her journey like, do you think? I am relating to the questions she had wanted qualified vote for such a long time because she at the educational system of the rural South Africa, what was she afraid they would do or not do? That they would be persuaded to wrong for the wrong person?

Robin: No! Her support for the qualified vote was in, was in 1946 to be precise at a conference in London where she said the people don’t understand you know in my own country the, the emergence of well, you know of well-educated urban Black South Africans on the other hand people outside the country don’t understand just how totally uneducated most of the rural population are. So what she supported at that time was a franchise based on an educational qualification you know that people should vote if they had basic education that was by the way a progressive stance in 1946 but believe you and me not just in South Africa.

By the way no African country had yet been decolonized and none of them were decolonized until around 1960. Now she evolved quite quickly in her thinking about that but she did believe that if you know people were, were totally uneducated, had no access to any normal means of information you know that was, that was potentially a problem.

Well her party adopted universal suffrage you know in the early 1970s far too late in her opinion but in case just to put this in historical context. There was one other person who suggested a qualified franchise as of late of the 1960s guess who that was? It was Nelson Mandela in one of his speeches at the trial, he said if necessary as a step on the road you know leading to a universal suffrage we can consider a qualified franchise for a limited period of time.

About Helen Suzman and the Mandela’s, as you know she first visited Mandela when he was on Robin Island in 1967 and the prison authorities didn’t want her to meet Mandela. They put him in the furthest cell in the hope that she will be detained by other prisoners and never even get there, then time will be up for going in to the cell and so on. The other prisoners according to Ahmed Kathrada who told me the story had heard from the bush telegraph that she was coming. So they immediately said to her please go see Mandela he is our leader but to meet him, she had to shake his hand through the bars of his cell. She was immensely impressed immediately you know dignity, authority, commanding persons, lack of any difference to the prison authorities. He was not rude to them. He just simply just you know shrugged his shoulders and dealt with them, pretty much ignored them.

And she then met him, as you know several times in prison. She got rid of the warder with a swastika on his hand, she… they were breaking rocks in the quarry at the time. She helped to get an end, an end to labor, books for the prisoners, the right family visits and the right to do distance learning at UNISA. It took her ages to achieve all that but by 1980 she had achieved all that actually and they never forgot it. None of them and there is a wonderful description by Brighton Badge in memoirs of an albino tourist. He saw he was in prison, he saw Helen Suzman walking in to the prison yard as he said with a gaggle of, of helpless really crossed boarders behind her mashing their teeth and trying to shoo her away and she would never be shooed away and in her archive you can see all the letters she wrote after each one of these visits to the Minister of Police, to the Commissioner of Police to the prison authorities and so on and so forth relentless follow up and Mandela never forgot that,

And when he came, when he emerged from prison I mean he immediately invited her to meet him in Soweto, producing two famous photographs one handed in hand on the back of his book and the other giving her an enormous hug, you know I used to see them together. There was a real sort of love affair between this two, she, she adored Mandela and he adored her. Leading to some very entertaining exchanges between them, I mean one day she and I went to see Mandela together. He had just been to Libya and on the course of his visit he described Gadhafi as a great supporter of human rights and I said to him as politely as I could that wasn’t a very sensible thing to say. Only to be elbowed aside by Mrs. Suzman who said Nelson, how could you be so silly and laughed, he rolled with laughter in part because, he knew she was right, and he said well what I meant was they gave money to the ANC.

I said well you know she did to that not exactly the same thing. Later on when he was President he gave four people the order of merit and he said three of them were men and he said in, in choosing these four people, for three of them I followed my head, for the fourth one I followed my heart and I’m not telling you who she is but she gives me lots of trouble he said and you know when he ceased to be President. Mbeki took over she was very disappointed because she thought Mbeki was highly intelligent person you know, you know adopting sensible economic policies but he was paranoid about criticism and she violently attacked the government doe its denial-ism about AIDS,

She was of course right about that, as everyone would now agree. Mandela wrote her this lovely letter never published before saying dear Helen, I’m beginning to feel sorry for your former opponents in the National Party he said, anyhow this went on to the end of her life, you know, he held her as a veteran, a world famous veteran freedom fighter and she said to me you know, it’s very nice of him to say that but I was not a freedom fighter, I was a fighter for freedom which was, which was different and so on, but the relationship with Winnie Mandela was actually as almost as close because through the miserable years of her very solitary exile  in Brantford hundreds of miles from anywhere she knew. Helen visited her and every time she visited Winnie the security police burst in to the house and searched it and distracted the meeting producing a few choice of episodes for Mrs. Suzman I can tell you!

Every time she visited Winnie, they were interrupted by the security police, no security policeman interrupted or harassed Helen Suzman without receiving some volley of opinions from her about them, I can assure you, now anyway the book contains some very moving correspondence from Winnie.  First letter to Helen says thank you so much for your letter, it was of course opened by and I quote “guardian” who didn’t even observe the crude courtesy of receiving it, she said and when Winnie got into trouble later. Helen would not abandon her.

Helen said you have to remember everything she suffered through those 13 or whatever it was 12 miserable years in Brantford. When she was totally isolated and at the mercy of those people and the book also contains letter after letter, message after message when Winnie told her, you know, we will never forget, you are truly one of us. You will, it will be remembered what you did for all the people that had no rights and no voice. On her 90th birthday to my wonderful loyal, faithful friend and when people sometimes argue that you know, the liberation movement branded away well you know all she did was, was present a scenario of respectability to this regime, read Winnie’s reply to that, Winnie’s reply to that was but for her the world would not have known what was going on in this country,

She was the only person who was fighting for all of us, for all people who had no votes, no votes and no rights and you know of all the convincing counter arguments, that’s the one actually and you know Helen knew when she embarked on this career that there was going to be a cost and there certainly was the cost to her family because she you know she was in Cape Town for 6 months of the year. She travelled there whenever she could but she had to young daughters you know who were both in school. They, they didn’t really suffer in any other way because they were very well looked after by their father, by their grandmother, the enjoyed schools they were in and so on you know they, they lived very comfortably but they certainly didn’t see her as often as you normally would see your mother. So she felt guilty about that from time to time,

But she became so obsessed with the work she was doing you know this was a crusade as far as she was concerned. When I asked her how did you keep going through those 13 years well she had an incredible stamina, her daughters used to call a Basotho Pony because they have unbelievable qualities of endures, what she said to me it was my anger that kept me going, going to see what had happened to all this people who’d been displaced, you know all the people she was visiting in prison you know she could become quite a bit… many things they did in clandestine with rage, as she was about Steve Biko, Neil Aggett, and so on but in the end it all worked out because I, I knew the family, many years later. Both of the daughters were extremely close to their Helen, and you know towards the end of her life both of them were trying to look after her. To the extent she would let them do so, which was very limited actually because she was fiercely independent to the end. Both Fancy who saw her more often, Fancy ended up being based in London and Pattie who was a very distinguished doctor in Boston. I very often used to find them with her and it was a very close-knit family.

Barbara: Did she ever get any death threats?

Robin: Yes! She got loads of death threats. She got loads of abuse. She got loads of abusive telephone calls. She used to have a very high pitch dog whistle for use when she got an abusive phone call. She, she suffered all kinds of harassment but she was never actually… of course she got death threats but she, she was never sort of physically attacked but, but one time in parliament with some NAT MP said to her you won’t be here much longer, she said well how are you going to achieve that? Are you planning to send me to Robin Island? You know she was absolutely fabulous this lady, she really was.

Barbara: It’s ironic that she ends up being the representative from Houghton, which is the constituency most benefiting of the Apartheid regime, how did she get there, who made those decisions?

Robin: Well the, the criticism of her by the sort of Afrikaners was that she represented you know the richest district in South Africa you know the so-called silk stocking district of Houghton. Who were, who were the voters, who were fiercely loyal to her partly because she, every time she came back from parliament she held a meeting with all of them to tell them what she had been doing. Discuss it with them but also because she was such a charismatic figure that you know the, the criticism from the sort of poorer Afrikaners was the rich don’t need Apartheid cause they have their own Apartheid already you know, they were living in these pretty houses in Houghton and so on and so forth you know it’s a complete false criticism obviously because, you know, I, when I came as a ambassador to this country, people couldn’t ride on the buses, they couldn’t get to the beaches, they couldn’t get to White schools, those schools they wanted to do, they got little of what they wanted to do it was an abominable system but it is true that she did represent probably the affluent constituency in South Africa.

Barbara: And they were the ones who wanted change, who were they?

Robin: Well they, they supported her and you know, most of these people were sufficiently sophisticated economically to understand that this system was a crazy system and you know one reason she opposed to disinvestment was the big, and in fact the main reason she opposed it was that the big and multinational companies, all were training black South Africans, like you know also providing them with pensions, safety and you know safety and environmental protections and so on… And, and she firmly believed that the efforts of companies like Shell, BP, Rio Tinto, Unilever and indeed Anglo-American were breaking down Apartheid within, you know simply by providing necessity for them. Obviously with training more and more Black managerial stuff and creating a Black middle class, which would have never put up with this system.

Barbara: What would her legacy be?

Robin: Right! Her legacy in my opinion is two folded and indisputably this was a great figure in South African history. Now you see firstly vital legacy for race relations throughout this period. When you know oppression was at its very worst for Black South Africans they could see there was one person in parliament.  She said to her constituency in Houghton, ‘I will never, ever do anything for you.’ What she represented for the people who had no votes and no rights. So the Black leaders at that time and the Black newspapers at that time all said millions of our votes are with you Helen and the New York times said this one lady in parliament represents more people than the rest of the parliament combined, that was the first legacy.

The second legacy was her critic of the system, you know she was, she was able to continue for so long through the worst of times because of an utter certainty that she was right. So she told Verwoerd the system is crazy, you are, expect all these people to go backs to their homelands, which they won’t do until only exercise their political rights. When there are millions more Black South Africans in so called, “White South Africans”, than there ever will be in the homelands, what are you going to do? Are you going to declare Soweto a homeland she would say? Her arguments in the end were answerable. And she believed that you actually had to persuade this government eventually to negotiate and she you know she made a massive contribution to that because it wasn’t by accident that you know 25 years later these younger MPs and verlegte NATs started using exactly the same arguments she had done far too late in the day but they did.

Barbara: There was also in terms of women, if you were in politics at the time she has a huge raised a picture of what women can do, how smart they are and what kind of full energy they have.

Robin: Indeed, I mean she, she never regarded herself as a quote, “woman politician” but just as she campaigned for everything else. She campaigned for women’s rights in terms of divorce. In terms of property ownership and so on, which was limited believe it or not before in South Africa and you know, a huge campaign about birth control as well. She had a few difficulties with her friend Nelson Mandela because she used to say to him we must have a nationwide program of birth control and he would say but we Africans love children. Helen would say, and she would snort to me as if the rest of us don’t… anyhow she won and the ANC good for them. The ANC government introduced a nationwide program of birth control.


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