04 December, 2007


Helen Suzman and democracy

BBC Radio 4's Woman's Hour is a programme which has me lunging in panic for the off switch. It is suffused with smug condescending sexism leavened with the odd touch of feminist victimism. An infuriating programme, especially when the Great She-Whale herself, Jenni Murray, is presiding.

One day last week though, I did stop to listen, and I was glad I did. The programme consisted largely of a biographical piece to celebrate the 90th birthday of the South African anti-Apartheid activist Helen Suzman, presented by Sue McGregor. Fascinating stuff.

One thing I had not known before was that Suzman did not support immediate universal suffrage in place of the Apartheid system. Instead she recommended a qualified suffrage based on education and/or wealth. A very practical and suitable solution which might well have worked. Under such a system, a few Whites would lose the franchise, and a small number of educated Blacks would gain it, as would a significant number of Indians and Coloureds. By defining the rules carefully, the power structure of the post-Apartheid South Africa would initially be little changed, but Indians, Coloureds and especially Blacks would know they had a right and a realistic opportunity to participate. If the bar were set fairly and transparently, and there was genuine and visible investment in improving the economic and education conditions of the Black underclass, this transitional solution might have been sold.

Instead we had immediate universal suffrage, leading to the rule of the mob, the politics of revenge and the economics of expropriation by the envious unskilled.

When will Western liberals learn that our system does not suit everybody? Universal suffrage works in educated, homogeneous, non-tribal societies. In a multi-ethnic society, particularly one so infused with mutual resentments, other structures, sometimes not democratic in our understanding of the term, may be more effective.

Political rants are truly universal. I enjoy reading your blog. Have a nice day.

Next stop Zimbabwe.

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