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The Helen Suzman portrait the ANC caused to disappear

The strange parliamentary career of the picture of the anti-apartheid stalwart.

On Sunday Helen Suzman was laid to rest in West Park cemetery, Johannesburg. President Kgalema Motlanthe had made the offer of a state funeral, but this had been declined by her family. Numerous senior ANC figures nonetheless came to pay their respects. According to Beeld newspaper among those who carried Suzman’s coffin at the funeral were President Motlanthe, ANC secretary general Gwede Mantashe, the Gauteng Premier Paul Mashatile, and Mayor of Johannesburg Amos Masondo.

As noted elsewhere Suzman’s contribution was not always treated with such respect by the ANC. The strange career of Suzman’s portrait in parliament (see below) tells the story.

Following her resignation from parliament in 1989 Suzman’s long time friend and colleague, the Democratic Party MP Colin Eglin, raised funds from friends and colleagues to commission a portrait of Suzman by the artist Fleur Ferri. Parliament’s rules committee unanimously agreed that the portrait could be hung in the corridors of the house – an honour previously reserved for former governors-general, prime ministers, presidents, speakers, and cabinet ministers.

In a small ceremony in February 1991 Eglin handed over the portrait to the acting speaker, Helgard van Rensburg. The Cape Times stated in an editorial the day after that few people deserved the honour more. During her three decades in parliament “she epitomized… the indomitable spirit of opposition within South Africa to apartheid and the systematic destruction of civil liberties… Year after year she withstood the vitriol, often personally directed, of governments intolerant of her role as parliamentary mouthpiece for the banned, the imprisoned and the oppressed. Her record stands unequalled.”

In her autobiography In No Uncertain Terms, published in 1993, Suzman noted how at the gathering “van Rensburg, a one-time vociferous opponent, described my parliamentary career in glowing terms. My own speech was less gracious because I could not help reminding van Rensburg that when I opposed bills which were now being repealed in the interests of the ‘New South Africa’, he and his fellow Nationalist MPs had accused me of being unpatriotic, a sickly humanist and a dangerous subversive.”

Suzman went on to drolly remark “It is a moot point whether my portrait, or indeed the others, will survive in the New South Africa. They may well be relegated to the cellar.” In January 1996 Suzman’s portrait was duly taken down by the ANC as part of a more generalised purge of “colonial and apartheid-era” relics in parliament.

The portrait was only rescued from complete oblivion in 2000 following a campaign by then DP leader Tony Leon supported by Suzman. In March of that year Leon wrote to the speaker, Frene Ginwala, noting that Suzman was concerned “that the painting of her, which was commissioned through private donations and presented to your predecessor and duly hung in Parliament, is now gathering dust in some or other cellar or place of storage.” Leon said that this was not the intention of the donors, whom he had consulted on the matter.

“It was their intention, and remains the desire of my party, that it should be properly displayed in Parliament or its precincts. Since this does not appear to be the desire of your office, or Parliament, I am authorised to make the following request: could you either return the portrait to the DP or Mrs Suzman and we will ensure it is hung in a suitable place…”

Ginwala referred the matter back to the parliamentary rules committee, and eventually the portrait was handed back to Suzman and the DP. In June 2000 it was hung for a second time in parliament – this time in the DP’s caucus room in the Marks Building which was also named after Suzman on the occasion.

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