“Like everybody else, I long to be loved. But I am not prepared to make any concessions whatsoever”. Helen Suzman
Ever since I started taking an interest in South African affairs – an interest that began when I was an undergraduate at Cambridge, where earnest progressives sought to establish their anti-apartheid credentials by declining to drink South African sherry – the activities of Helen Suzman always seemed to me to offer the clearest beacon of hope that some kind of sanity might in the end prevail.
When, nearly 30 years later, I arrived in South Africa as a fledgling British ambassador, I still had never met this woman I so much admired. I did so with some trepidation. In the course of her political career Mrs Suzman had seen a great many high commissioners, and then ambassadors, come and go, some I am sure more memorable than others. Yet I was greeted with all the friendliness and helpfulness that had been shown to every one of my predecessors and the innumerable other well-intentioned foreigners who regarded Helen Suzman as their most reliable guide to the political labyrinth of apartheid.
I was delighted to find that, in addition to being the most determined and effective opponent of injustice, Helen Suzman also was the most entertaining company it was possible to find in South Africa, or anywhere else for that matter. However difficult the circumstances, lunch with her was sure to end in gales of laughter, and I will never again be able to watch anyone pouring soda into a glass of whisky without hearing Helen say: ‘Don’t drown it!’
Never lacking in resourcefulness, on one well-remembered occasion, trying to avoid violence at a demonstration in Cape Town, she was confronted by a snarling Alsatian police dog straining on its leash to get at her. A dog-lover herself, she ordered the animal to sit, which it proceeded meekly to do, convulsing even the police with laughter at their own expense.
In the course of weekend fishing trips with her in the eastern Transvaal I discovered that, as in her dealings with her political opponents, she did not believe in taking any prisoners. Every trout she caught was dispatched to the smokery and served up for future dinners, while I was painstakingly returning mine to the river from which they came.
Behind the clear blue eyes, sparkling with intelligence, lay a biting wit, steely resolve and utter determination never to let up in her attacks on the system she abhorred until she saw it crumbling around her. Over four decades, she campaigned relentlessly against every manifestation of apartheid – against grand apartheid, forced removals and the homelands policy, detention without trial and all abuses of authority on behalf of the victims and countless millions disenfranchised by the system.
This extract has been taken from the introduction to Helen Suzman – Bright Star in a Dark Chamber by Robin Renwick.
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Recent Reviews for Helen Suzman
“Helen Suzman was sharp, incisive, principled and loads of fun. So is this biography." John Carlin, Author of Invictus
“[T]he truest of liberals… this crispy, lucid account is persuasive in presenting her as the doughtiest of fighters for human rights anywhere and one of the finest parliamentarians.” The Economist
“A fascinating insight into the life of a truly great South African… Former British Ambassador to South Africa Robin Renwick has penned a book rich with examples of her humour and political brilliance.” The South African
“A remarkable biography about a memorable woman. As British ambassador to South Africa, Lord Robin Renwick established a lasting friendship with Helen Suzman. Hence the excellence of this biography.” Stanley Uys, veteran South African journalist and political commentator