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 shocked, but a few were amused and one or two actually liked me.

It is hard to overstate what Helen Suzman achieved during her thirty-six years in Parliament, for thirteen of them as the sole member of her party. Working within a near-totalitarian political system, she cannily exploited a structural weakness of that system—parliamentary privilege—to bring into the open abuses of power which, by the use of bans on public speech and restrictions on reporting, the government would otherwise successfully have kept hidden. Backed by a sympathetic liberal press, she conducted campaigns from Parliament against the use of torture by the police and against the practice of “forced removals”—the shifting of black communities from one part of the country to another in the interest of ethnic homogeneity. Of these removals she warned: “A vast problem…is going to have to be solved by our children, because the conditions which are being set in the urban areas of South Africa for the African people are going to lead to the most terrible conditions of crime and delinquency.” From the crime-ridden South Africa of the 1990s, these words, spoken in 1969, have a prophetic ring.

Suzman made use of her parliamentarian’s right to visit prisons to hear the grievances of prisoners and urge improvements in prison conditions. She visited Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela and other leaders of resistance movements were held, and complained vocally about the wretched conditions there. As a result conditions improved. Breyten Breytenbach, himself incarcerated during the 1970s, wrote: “The prisoners, both political and common law, consider her as Our Lady of the Prisoners. She is indeed a living myth among the people inhabiting the world of shadows.”

During the darkest years of state repression, the years of the notorious and aptly-named Terrorism Act of 1967, which allowed the security police to detain suspects indefinitely without charging them or bringing them to trial and made even the publication of their names an offense, Suzman was subjected to an orchestrated campaign of vilification in the House, a campaign clearly intended to break her nerve. Her mail was also intercepted. (A defector later revealed her security-police file number, “W/V 24596,” W/V standing for wit vrou, white woman.)


Suzman spells out the ideals that sustained her through these years and informed her activities on behalf of the oppressed. She acted for the sake of “individual liberty, civil rights and the rule of law,” “to keep alive…democratic values.” “My job in Parliament…was to provide an outlet, a means of expression, for all those people who were not prepared to conform to the bizarre practices known of as ‘the South African way of life.’ ”

I certainly was used by people who had political views and aims very different from my own, ranging from those who supported the banned Communist Party to extreme black nationalists. But,…as long as [the government] locked people up without trial, I had no option.

She was indeed a freedom fighter: a fighter for the principle of freedom rather than on the side of any specific group.

As for women’s rights, though she has campaigned for the right to abortion, Suzman has not felt called upon to campaign against gender discrimination—rampant in both traditional and modern South African society—as committedly as against race discrimination. In this respect she resembles her near-contemporary, Nadine Gordimer.

From her long parliamentary career, Suzman has emerged with unrivaled authority to comment on the autocratic Afrikaner leaders who constructed and steered the juggernaut of apartheid. Hendrik Verwoerd, ideologue of separate freedoms for separate races and architect of a deliberately impoverished education system for blacks, was, she writes, “a fanatic,” “the only man who has ever scared me stiff.” He and his immediate successors, Balthazar John Vorster and P.W. Botha, were “as nasty a trio as you could encounter in your worst nightmares.” She once suggested that Vorster should “go into the townships heavily disguised as a human being” so he could “experience at first hand what it was like to be a black South African.” Between Botha and herself there was no love lost. “An irascible bully,” she calls him, “spiteful [and] retributive.” She finds F.W. de Klerk, by contrast, “a pragmatic, intelligent man.”

That, unfortunately, is as far as the analysis goes. If one had expected an insider’s insight into how pious, respectable family men could decade after decade have hardened their hearts to the daily suffering they were causing, one will be disappointed. Suzman describes the callousness, the numbing of the moral faculty, that characterized the legislators of apartheid—she even reminds us that Verwoerd had written a doctoral thesis on the blunting of the emotions—but she does not explore any further the stunted psyche of the racist. She recognizes the nihilism at the core of apartheid, an essentially uncreative system never intended to achieve more than a postponement of the inevitable. She quotes a telling remark by a cynically frank Nationalist politician: “We can hold the situation for my generation and for my children’s generation, and after that, who cares?” But she has nothing new to say about the amorality of a group of men who, too selfish and too limited to confront the real demands of postcolonial Africa, chose instead to bequeath the problem to their grandchildren of the 1990s.

There are other opportunities not taken up in this book. In 1966 Verwoerd was assassinated in the House of Assembly before Suzman’s eyes. Her three pages on the episode are devoted mainly to a heated and malicious insult flung at her by P. W. Botha and to her subsequent efforts to extract an apology. She makes no attempt to dramatize the incident, and barely reflects on the assassin, one of the more intriguing minor actors on the South African stage, who is described simply as a “swarthy illegal immigrant.”

In such episodes as her first visit to Pretoria Central Prison or the funeral of the Pan-Africanist leader Robert Sobukwe, one again feels the opportunity beckoning for Suzman to tell the story in vivid detail and bring history to life; but the challenge of becoming a writer rather than just a recorder and memoirist is one she declines.

However worthy its subject, there is in the end a tired and incurious quality to Suzman’s book. It is as though she has little conception of what a book can be (among her recreations she mentions golf and bridge but not reading). Her memoir has the air of a recital given many times before—a story in a rut, told by rote, curiously affectless, as though her emotions too have been blunted and blighted. As people live their own lives, so they should write their own memoirs. Nevertheless, one finds oneself wishing Helen Suzman had had a little more aid and counsel in writing hers.


Suzman is by no means shy to quote testimonials. Her book is studded with tributes to herself from Albert Luthuli, Alan Paton, Robert Kennedy, Winnie Mandela, Gatsha Buthelezi, and many others. She is palpably upset when Andrew Young, US Ambassador to the United Nations, remarks of her that he “can deal with cold hatred but I can’t stand paternal liberalism,” and spends two pages on how she tried to get Young to change his mind about her position (“Simple justice was ever my motivation, not ‘paternal liberalism’,” she protests).

High-minded liberalism had in fact made Suzman a more and more lonely figure in the 1980s, both inside and outside South Africa. She found this to her cost when she spoke against Western economic sanctions against South Africa and was shouted down on previously hospitable American campuses. Her argument—a perfectly reasonable one, on the face of it—was that sanctions would hit black workers before they hit white bosses; but the argument cut no ice when black leaders at home, including the respected Desmond Tutu, backed the sanctions. “We liberals were becoming a truly endangered species,” she writes: “for many years under attack from the right, we were now attacked by the left as well, especially by bitter exiles.”

The truth is that liberals like Suzman were becoming marginal even earlier in South Africa. After the 1976 Soweto uprising she found that young blacks wanted no dealings with her; even white students dismissed her as irrelevant. The middle ground had begun to shrink; soon there would be nowhere left to stand but on the left or on the right.

At the end of her book Suzman looks forward to a peaceful and prosperous future for her country. Among the huge tasks to be performed before that future can be attained, however, she lists the reform of a reactionary, white-dominated civil service, the housing of millions of people at present living in squalid settlements on the fringes of cities, and “rehabilitating a generation of young blacks who…[have] refused to attend school.”

Of these, the most daunting—when we bear in mind that half the population of South Africa is under the age of sixteen—is the task of returning black youth to school. There is a strong argument to be made that, from 1976 to the present, the engine of history has been driven by black teen-agers, with their elders left puffing behind, trying to look as if they are in charge. In a stagnant economy, with black unemployment, even among high-school graduates, at alarming levels, it will be hard to persuade children to give up the tumultuous and in many ways exciting life they have led on the streets to return to the drudgery of the classroom, in the charge of demoralized and often ill-educated teachers teaching sterile curricula.

Until schooling and the discipline that goes with schooling—a discipline which, not to put too fine a point on it, amounts to social control—have taken firmer root in South Africa, Suzman’s vision of the triumph of moderation will remain unpersuasive.


In 1960 Breyten Breytenbach left his native South Africa to live in Paris, where he wrote poetry and painted. There he fell in love with and married a woman of Vietnamese descent. Interracial marriages being illegal in the South Africa of those days, he could not return home with his wife; he refused to return without her.

In 1972, in a gesture of conciliation toward the Afrikaans intellectual community, which was troubled by such treatment of a man who had in the meantime become widely acknowledged as the leading poet of his generation, the South African government granted Breytenbach and his wife visas for a brief visit. During this visit Breytenbach gave an uncompromising address at a writers’ conference: it is because Afrikaners are a bastard people, he said, that they are obsessed with racial purity; apartheid is the law of the bastard. As for the future of South Africa, that lay in the hands of black South Africans; the task of white intellectuals could only be to work for the transformation of their own community.

In furtherance of this goal, Breytenbach returned to South Africa in 1975 on a forged French passport to recruit sympathizers to an organization dedicated to sabotaging military and industrial targets. Because of incompetence and perhaps even treachery among his ANC associates, he was picked up by the security police, put on trial, and given a long sentence, of which he served seven years.

In 1980, while he was still in prison, his book A Season in Paradise appeared, first in the Netherlands, then in the English-speaking world—a memoir of the 1972–1973 visit interspersed with poems, reminiscences, and reflections on the South African situation (it includes the text of the address mentioned above). The title A Season in Paradise casts an ironical glance at Rimbaud’s Une Saison en enfer; Breytenbach’s new book, Return to Paradise, carries the echoes further (“this region of damnation,” he calls the country now)—in fact, as he explains in a preface, the two Paradise books are meant to be read together with his prison memoir, The True Confessions of an Albino Terrorist, as an autobiographical triptych addressing a chapter of his life now closed, a chapter during which he struggled to grasp the nature of his links to the landscape and history of the continent on which he was born.

Return to Paradise is casually organized, as was the earlier book. It is a loose narrative of the journey he made in 1991, again accompanied by his wife, through F.W. De Klerk’s “reformed” South Africa, intercut with horror stories from South African newspapers and with flashbacks to visits to other parts of Africa.

Breytenbach—who is now a French citizen—had visited South Africa several times in the 1980s—visits hemmed in by official obstructionism—so what he sees in 1991 does not come as a complete surprise to him. Nevertheless, as he remarks after a tour through the killing fields of Natal province, where, in a landscape of unsurpassed beauty, ANC and Inkatha adherents daily slaughter each other with gun and spear, “I am looking at the future and it chills me to the bone…. The land is awash in blood.”

If the future holds not interracial harmony but interethnic and internecine warfare without end, then where did it all go wrong? At whose door does the fault lie?

In part Breytenbach blames the present state of affairs on the ANC’s policy of “making the townships ungovernable,” in part on the Zulu leader Gatsha Buthelezi, waging a stubborn, clandestine war for his share of the spoils; but he identifies the ultimate source of evil as elements in the white state that have decided, “If we have to be brought down we shall topple the pillars of Babylon with us.” These elements, “niched within the shadowy reaches of occult structures and operations and secret funds,” pull the strings that control the daily mayhem, “like mad dogs who go on biting even without orders to do so.”

This is not an original analysis. Whoever it may have been who fired the first shot, the bloodletting today is being carried out by ANC-affiliated youth beyond the control of family or party leadership, by Buthelezi’s irregulars battling against what they see as the marginalizing of the Zulu people, and by agents, some from ultra-right organizations, some within the state security forces, operating directly or through proxies to create as much chaos as they can. Nor can Breytenbach offer an account of what is happening on the ground any more vivid—or more appalling—than what he quotes from the daily newspapers.

If there is anything surprising about Breytenbach’s views, therefore, it is that he seems to regard the spectacle of cliques of middle-aged men negotiating their slice of the cake while their followers fight it out as a betrayal of the promise of the revolution. “We are too pusillanimous to make the Revolution,” he writes, or, more bitterly, “The trick is to mobilize fools for the Revolution, to abort it, then to use the corpses as stepping-stones to the masters’ table of shared power.” “This is the new [South Africa] …more broadly based hegemony but [the] same mechanisms and same sadness.” One is tempted to ask: What does Breytenbach expect from politicians? Is politics not about making deals?

In a preface to the English-language edition dated 1993, Breytenbach grudgingly moderates his lament that the revolution has been betrayed. “In order to sleep soundly the dream must be devoured,” he concedes in a sinister metaphor, hinting that the state selects the best children, the revolutionary dreamers, to sacrifice first.

He moderates his lament but does not withdraw it: the new order he sees emerging is not the order he fought for. While he is not so naive as not to recognize that his “small whimpers for an impossible revolution” are utopian, he refuses to yield up the right of the poet to imagine a future beyond the capacity of politicians and so to have a prophetic say in the future—even the right to bite the hand that has fed him.

What, besides the wasted prison years, has Breytenbach given up to the revolution? He has been dragged into the factionalism, intrigue, and backstabbing of exile politics. He has also been part of the anti-apartheid circuit, attending conferences, making speeches, giving readings. Return to Paradise allows only glimpses of what this circuit entailed: among other things, holding his tongue when he saw funds from Western philanthropists being cynically ripped off; not antagonizing venal African dictatorships where to have the most elementary freedom of movement he had to pay off the thugs assigned to guard him.

We get a fuller picture of the poet’s life on the 1991 visit to South Africa, also paid for by a foundation: readings in noisy lecture halls where the audience doesn’t understand the language and comes only to inspect the oddity named Breytenbach; perplexed responses (“But aren’t you ever happy? Now that we’ve won, can’t you rejoice?” asks an ANC comrade). His hosts react with incomprehension and hostility when he asserts that his role in the future will be as it was in the past: “To be against the norm, orthodoxy, the canon, hegemony, politics, the State, power….Man is the enemy of the machine”—sentiments which do not go down well in a country that has, as he observes dryly, slid straight from pre-humanity to post-humanity.

The message Breytenbach brings with him on his tour is that the world is losing interest in Africa the Beggar Continent. “To Europe Africa is only a mass of human matter making a mass sport of dying.” South Africans, spoiled by decades in the international spotlight, will have to learn to be self-sufficient. What he does not add, but might have, is that American and European foundations are no longer going to pay for South African intellectuals to congregate in exotic locales and talk about their visions of the future. In more ways than one, Return to Paradise signals the end of a certain road, not for Breytenbach alone but for left-leaning South African intellectuals in general: unless they are able to find a role for themselves that gives them critical (and economic) independence from a government they will have helped to bring to power, they will be absorbed into an establishment, become part of an orthodoxy.

So the spirit in which Breytenbach concludes his autobiographical triptych is by no means one of tranquility. On the contrary, he uses Return to Paradise to lash out, in anguish and bitterness, in all directions: against white liberals, against the South African Communist Party and “more-doctrinaire-than-thou” bourgeois leftists, against former associates like Wole Soyinka (“whenever a head of state beckons he will comply”) and Jesse Jackson (“each time the camera looked his way he was on his feet with clenched fist held high and a pious tear in the combative eye; when the camera swung away he was back to supercilious boredom”), and particularly, for its leaders’ treatment of him when he was in jail, against the ANC itself:

Not only did the ANC withhold assistance from my dependants, not only did they disavow me, but the London clique of bitter exiles intervened to stop any manifestation of international or local support for my cause. They black-balled and maligned me, abetted by well-meaning “old friends” inside the country. Even Amnesty International was prevailed upon not to “adopt” me as a prisoner of conscience.

Of the ANC leadership, only Nelson Mandela is singled out for praise. To Mandela, as seen on a ceremonial visit to France, Breytenbach devotes several pages of close and even affectionate attention:

His mind seemed totally unshackled, freed from fear and small considerations, so that he could speak it directly (in contrast to Mitterrand’s, which is infinitely devious, or that of De Klerk—maimed by apartheid—which has to juggle with the unsaid and the need to emit double messages)…. Only the lips in repose betrayed him—severe, dark, aloof, bitter. It is the mouth which sometimes says more, and more eloquently, than the voice can; lips close over the unsayable: This cannot be spoken about, so why bother?

But the plague that Breytenbach pronounces upon all the parties to the South African conflict—a judgment in which, despite the pungency of the language, there remains something wild and out of control—makes up the less interesting half of the book. His best pages address a more intimate and more fundamental concern: what it means to him to be rooted in a landscape, to be African-born. For though Breytenbach has spent almost all his adult life in Europe, he is not a European:

To be an African is not a choice, it is a condition…. To be [an African] is not through lack of being integrated in Europe;…neither is it from regret of the crimes perpetrated by “my people”…. No, it is simply the only opening I have for making use of all my senses and capabilities…. The [African] earth was the first to speak. I have been pronounced once and for all.

What he means by saying that Africa allows him to use his senses and his capabilities fully is revealed in page after magical page as he responds to the sights and sounds of “the primordial continent.” An immensely gifted writer, he is able to descend effortlessly into the Africa of the poetic unconscious and return with the rhythm and the words, the words in the rhythm, that give life. This faculty of his is not individual, he insists, but is inherited from his Afrikaner ancestors, “forebears with the deep eyes of injured baboons,” whose lives had been spent in intimate relation with their native landscape, so that when he brings forth that landscape in words he is speaking in their voices as much as his own.

It is this very traditional, very African realization—that his deepest creative being is not his own but belongs to an ancestral consciousness—that gives rise to some of the pain and confusion of Return to Paradise. For though Breytenbach may recognize how marginal he is in what is nowadays on all sides, and with equal irony, called “the new South Africa,” and may even enjoy dramatizing himself as the one without a self, the bastard, the “nomadic nobody,” or, in his favorite postmodern figure, the face in the mirror, a textual shadow without substance, he knows that exile blunts feeling and that ultimately he owes his strength to the earth and the ancestors. Thus the most moving passages in the book tell of visiting his father’s deathbed, renewing friendships, making peace with his brothers, taking his wife—the good angel who has watched over him through so many tribulations—to the old places of Africa.

This Issue

December 2, 1993