Interview: Helen Suzman

"I knew there had to be a hit squad, there were so many unexplained murders and deaths."

I suppose as one looks back the thing you are most famous for is all those years as the solitary Progressive MP. How did you manage to carry on alone in Parliament for such a long time?

Well, in fact that situation covered only 13 years of my 36 years in Parliament, and once another six Progressives were returned at the 1974 election, I could concentrate on the issues that really interested me and share companionship with people like Colin Eglin and Van Zyl Slabbert -people to share a laugh and a drink with.

There was no need to think about whether one was for or against what was happening - it was obvious that things like the Bantustans, Bantu Education, detention without trial, the pass laws and forced removals were totally unacceptable. There was a wonderful sense of commitment in the Progressive Party in those days - a sort of crusade.

When the great change finally came, of course, the effect was of Pandora's Box - all sorts of things came out. Have any of the apartheid atrocities revealed at the TRC surprised you?

No, not at all. What one didn't know for certain, one certainly suspected. I knew there had to be a hit squad, there were so many unexplained murders and deaths. Now one hears the detail but the main outline I already knew.

But other things have come out of Pandora's Box, too - a crime wave, threats to the universities, pressures on the press, a culture of entitlement. Many old supporters of the PFP or DP have been appalled by it.

Yes, but the main thing to remember always is that things are better now than they were. Of course, there is disappointment among liberals - one sees incompetents being appointed to jobs, one sees corruption. Perhaps some of our hopes were naive. We should certainly never have expected Utopia. And with unemployment as high as it is, a crime wave was quite predictable, particularly in a society where there is no welfare safety net.

But I agree with Mandela when he says that we could have had a bloody civil war and instead we have had national reconciliation. So things are a lot better than they were. All the oppressive apartheid laws have been repealed and we have no detention without trial, no Group Areas Act, no forced removals, and no bannings or house arrests.

But, of course, all we have done in a way is to swap one dominant party regime for another. Many of the same abuses of power are apparent now as were visible under the National Party.

Yes, I agree to some extent. But, of course, the difference now is that the government has democratic legitimacy - at least, it was elected by a majority of the people. I can quite understand why so many black people voted for the ANC, who should get credit for its historical struggle. But I am particularly concerned about the ANC's continued link to the Communist Party. To my mind there has been no excuse for supporting communist policies for a very long time now. Back in the 50s the crimes of Stalinism were thoroughly revealed and to go on supporting communism after the collapse of the Soviet Union is absurd.

What is it that worries you about communism now?

Well, it is not so much the policies - nobody seems to be too supportive of those any more. But the Communist Party still doesn't support free discussion and its organisational habits are still those of a bygone Stalinist era.

In some ways, you seem to have achieved an unusual balance. You attract some flak but you are a welcome figure, not only within the liberal camp but to the ANC as well.

Well, of course, that might not be so easy if I were still politically active. I am certainly happy to be friends with someone like Nelson Mandela. But I don't disguise what I stand for. The evening after the local government elections I happened to be sitting at a dinner with him and he asked how I had spent the previous day. I replied 'I stood in line for two hours in order to vote against you, Nelson'. He burst into laughter. As for attracting flak, I really don't care about that. I get lots of silly abusive letters and some appear in the press. I don't even bother to reply to them. People are welcome to think what they like about me.

But one cannot disguise the fact that there has been a sort of split in the liberal ranks, with some sliding away and failing to stand up for liberal values. If you went around South Africa in the 1980s you thought, what a lot of brave people there are in this country. Now, as you watch the scramble to be politically correct, you feel how few brave people there are. Does this bother you that these days it is politically incorrect to be a liberal?

Not at all. I am used to it - in Parliament the Nats used to call me a 'sickly humanist' and 'one of Lenin's useful idiots'. Outside Parliament, the radical left used to accuse me of giving legitimacy to an illegitimate government by sitting in Parliament. No matter that everything I exposed about the apartheid regime by way of Parliamentary questions and speeches was widely used by the radical left at home and abroad!

I am somewhat concerned, however, when people who used to share my basic values join in that chorus and call liberals paternalistic persons who are intent on preserving their privileged status quo. In fact the basic motivation was trying to ensure simple justice. But why should we liberals care how people judge us?

The truth is that liberalism has triumphed. The new constitution encompasses all our basic values -prohibition of discrimination, over the widest possible field, protection of rights, equality, the rule of law and due process, freedom of expression and movement and ownerships of property. We can have no quarrel with any of that - our task now is to see that the Constitution is implemented.

But many people seem to feel that liberals have something to be guilty about.

Well, I have absolutely nothing to feel guilty about. I opposed everything about apartheid and I have no regrets at all about my parliamentary career.

What are your greatest worries for the future?

I am very concerned about the universities. Some of the pressures on them are so unfair, for example the pretence that they can rush out and hire lots of black academics right away. There simply isn't any possibility of finding a large number of well-trained black academics able to fill the jobs in universities now or any time soon. Apart from anything else, the universities can't offer the same salaries as the private sector or the state. It is quite ridiculous to think that this is a matter of racism or resistance to transformation.

And your greatest hope?

That we will come through this inevitably difficult transitional period and see a major economic expansion. We all knew that this period would be difficult. We shouldn't be surprised about that and it could all have been a lot worse. But we have a huge population which is growing rapidly, although we have, thank goodness, adopted an abortion law which might help a little bit with that. But we have to see the economy revive if we are to provide employment, bring prosperity to our people, and see crime go down. That is my great hope.