Return to Paradise

by Breyten Breytenbach
Harcourt Brace, 224 pp., $22.95
Helen Suzman
Helen Suzman; drawing by David Levine


Helen Suzman was born in South Africa, the daughter of parents who at the turn of the century had emigrated from Lithuania to a then British colony whose burgeoning economy and liberal administration promised prosperity and security. They belonged to a wave of Jewish immigrants whose anglicized children and grandchildren were to become the backbone of the liberal intelligentsia in South Africa, playing leading roles in commerce, the professions, and the arts, as well as in progressive politics.

Helen Suzman herself entered politics at the ground floor as a party worker for the United Party of Jan Christiaan Smuts which favored close links between South Africa and Great Britain. In 1952 she was put forward as a candidate for a prosperous Johannesburg constituency, and won. From then until 1989, when she retired, she represented the same white voters, though in 1959 she left the sclerotic, backward-looking United Party to become a founder member of a liberal-democratic party which, as the Democratic Party, still has the support of some 4 or 5 percent of South Africans, most of them white people whose primary language is English.

Suzman became a party worker in the wake of the electoral shock of 1948, when Smuts, who had guided South Africa through World War II, was defeated by the forces of Afrikaner nationalism. The victory of the Afrikaner right, with its deep grudge against the British and British culture, its retrogressive race policies, and its barely submerged anti-Semitism, alarmed the Suzmans (Helen had married at an early age) enough to make them think of emigrating. But, as she candidly admits, the “sunny comforts” of the country, including “excellent domestic help, who attended to all the chores I hated,” proved too seductive.

The all-white Parliament of 1952 in which Suzman took her seat (people of color were still represented at that time, but by white MPs) was dominated by middle-aged Afrikaner men. It was not an environment, one would have thought, in which a young Jewish woman from an academic background would have felt comfortable. From its mother parliament in Westminster, the South African lower house had inherited debating practices that allowed speeches to be broken into by often puerile gibes and interjections. Of the taunts thrown at Suzman across the floor, many of them anti-Semitic or sexist, one is worth noting: “Neo-Communist, sickly humanist!” hissed one antagonist every time she spoke. It is a measure of the insularity of Calvinist Afrikanerdom of the time that the term humanist could have been intended as an insult.

In fact, Suzman flourished in Parliament. Among her opponents, she records, there were some who regarded her

with amazed fascination. [They] had large, docile wives brought up in Calvinist fashion to be respectful to their parents and to their husbands. Here was this small, cheeky female with a sharp tongue which she used without regard to rank and gender. Some were…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.