Helen Suzman’s South Africa

By January 14, 2009Article, Atlantic Eye

PRAGUE, Czech Republic, Jan. 14 (UPI) — She was of great wit. A grande dame with stinging intelligence. She had incredible willpower. The gritty anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman, who I interviewed twice, died Jan. 1 in Johannesburg — just a day after I had returned from a humanitarian mission to Africa.

From 1953 to 1989 Suzman sat in Parliament as a lone voice against white minority rule and as a tireless advocate for individual liberty and personal responsibility. She was firmly opposed to economic sanctions and divestment, fearing that South Africa would wreck the economy for generations of South Africans. “It doesn’t make sense for a free South Africa to inherit a wasteland,” she would say.

Suzman once 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 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.”

A free-market-oriented liberal, Suzman also opposed many of the policies of the new African National Congress government. She was especially concerned about education.

When apartheid ended, South African schools were beginning to integrate. The white schools provided a First World education, as did the universities. Black schools were dysfunctional from 1983 onwards because of the legacy of apartheid, but also because of the disruption caused by the ANC’s approach of “liberation before education.” Under Minister of Education F.W. de Klerk the government was moving slowly toward equal funding for education. By 1989 there were more black students in tertiary education than whites.

President F.W. de Klerk interacted with Helen Suzman. He admired her fortitude. He also agreed with many of her points of view. De Klerk would abolish many of the laws his own father, a leading nationalist politician, had enacted. Soon after becoming president in 1989, he would un-ban the ANC, he would open up South African politics to all South Africans — he would free Nelson Mandela after 27 years on Robben Island. In the process, he would abolish the remnants of apartheid altogether. Despite all this, the new South Africa that he bequeathed to the ANC faced enormous educational challenges.

After 1994 the ANC, full of idealism, made a number of disastrous decisions in its eagerness to reform education. It abolished school inspectorates and basic teacher training colleges. It drastically cut mother-tongue education for black children. The result was that after the third year of school, black children were taught in English, a language most of them could not understand, by teachers with a limited grasp of the language themselves. An outcomes-based system was introduced — which is fine for advanced First World schools — but completely unsuited to the rudimentary black schools. The result has been catastrophic for a whole generation of post-1994 black schoolchildren.

It is an embarrassment that 15 years after the fall of apartheid, education in a free South Africa has plummeted to new lows. Of the group of black students who entered schools in 1995, 1.2 million students, only 42,000 left school in 2007 able to read and do math at a 10th grade level. South Africa gives out more money per capita than all of the other African countries, yet its education system is one of the poorest on the continent. This has disastrous effects on employment and the economy and on efforts to increase the representation of black South Africans in senior management positions and professions.

A new political party, the Congress of the People — mostly dissatisfied ANC members who were loyal to former President Thabo Mbeki — for the first time is giving the ANC a serious run for its money. In regional by-elections in the Western Cape province in December, COPE did remarkably well. It remains to be seen how the party will do in national elections expected in April. COPE has made education, healthcare and open markets the cornerstone of its campaign.

As a democracy, South Africa can only survive with a strong rule of law, competing political parties and an economy that is based on free-market principles.

“It is not always possible to redress the past,” the great dissident and former President of the Czech Republic Vaclav Havel would say. “Sometimes one must be content to focus on the future.”

Helen Suzman knew this.

I can only hope she will not be turning in her grave.

(UPI International Columnist Marc S. Ellenbogen is chairman of the Berlin, Copenhagen and Sydney-based Global Panel Foundation and president of the Prague Society for International Cooperation. A founding trustee of the Democratic Expat Leadership Council, he is a senior associate at Syracuse University’s Maxwell School of Citizenship and Public Affairs in upstate New York.)