Helen Suzman: Bright Star In A Dark Chamber, by Robin Renwick

Helen Suzman: Bright Star In A Dark Chamber, by Robin Renwick, Biteback, RRP£16.99, $28.95

A month or so before Nelson Mandela’s 90th birthday the telephone rang in the Financial Times office in Johannesburg, and that other nonagenarian giant of South African politics came on the line. It was Helen Suzman, the redoubtable liberal politician who had single-handedly kept the apartheid leaders on their toes in the heyday of white minority rule.

She was crisp, clear and courteous – as she had been throughout her political career. She also displayed her customary laserlike attention to detail. It was this that had tripped up apartheid’s securocrats time and again in the whites-only parliament in the 1960s and 1970s when, as the only liberal opponent in the house for 13 years, she exposed state repression through detailed and all but irrefutable accounts of victims and prisoners.

On this occasion her critical eye had been drawn to an article in the FT that referred to a recent lunch when the doddery Mandela had supposedly popped round to her house for a plate of his favourite oxtail and a gossip. “Oxtail soup,” Suzman said firmly and with the slightest hint of reproof. “Not oxtail.”

Robin Renwick’s biography, which draws on his time as British ambassador in the frenetic last years of white rule, brims with such anecdotes. Happily, in an era of overlong and under-edited biographies, it shares her fondness for clarity, concision and humour. It is also exquisitely timed.

Suzman’s political heirs, the liberal opponents of the ruling African National Congress, will know the splendid arc of her career all too well. But this month of all months the foot soldiers of the opposition Democratic Alliance need the succour that will come from the refresher course her life encapsulates in the ardour, dedication and good humour required to challenge a dominant party.

At the start of the year more excitable backers of the Democratic Alliance were hoping it could exploit weaknesses in the ANC’s record in improving voters’ lives in the 20 years since the end of white rule, and peg back the ruling party’s majority in this year’s elections. By signing up as its presidential candidate Mamphela Ramphele, a leading public figure and the lover of the murdered activist Steve Biko, it was set for the first time to contest an election with a high-profile leader from the country’s black majority.

But last week, within days of the announcement, the deal fell apart. So once again the DA, which won 16.7 per cent of the vote to the ANC’s 66 per cent in 2009 elections, may well take to the polls with a white politician at its head – Helen Zille, the premier of the Western Cape province.

It is a daunting task even for one with such energy and fire as Ms Zille, an anti-apartheid activist who helped expose the death of Biko in police custody in 1977. The ANC can be expected to draw on her party’s backing by former supporters of the National party to portray it as nostalgic for the apartheid era.

But, as Renwick’s biography reminds us, Suzman faced a far steeper challenge. She once described the three apartheid leaders she squared off against, Hendrik Verwoerd, John Vorster and PW Botha, as being “as nasty a trio as you could encounter in your worst nightmares”. Yet not once did she show signs of weakness. Rather, she answered barb with barb, invariably winning. When told by Verwoerd that he had written her off, she replied: “And the whole world has written you off.” On another occasion, looking at the serried ranks of – white, of course – members of the ruling National party, she said: “I do not know why we equate – and with the examples before us – a white skin with civilisation.”

The ANC is no National party. While corruption is climbing up the political charge sheet, arguably the most telling electoral argument against it after 20 years in office is incompetence. It is better at formulating policy papers than delivering on them. But what it does have in common with the National party in its pomp, and indeed all dominant parties in any continent, is the need for a stint in opposition to retrieve its purpose. This is where Renwick’s sprightly narrative is relevant today. Suzman’s party did not defeat the Nationalists at the polls. But, by relentlessly exposing its excesses, it helped undermine it ultimately even in the eyes of some supporters.

Ms Zille has the easier task of operating in a democracy. With what Renwick describes as Suzman’s “biting wit, steely resolve and utter determination”, she should shrug off her setback and press home critiques. It may be the DA will never in itself defeat the ANC, but by persevering with the doughtiness of her late namesake as a “national ombudsman” on behalf of the neglected she will do South Africa and the ANC the service both need.

The writer is the FT’s news editor and a two-time South Africa bureau chief

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