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Anti-Apartheid Activist Politician Helen Suzman Dies

January 1, 2009 at 6:50 PM EDT
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Helen Suzman, the South African anti-apartheid activist and Nobel Peace Prize nominee has died at her home in Johannesburg at age 91. The NewsHour's Robert MacNeil discussed her views in a 1989 interview.

RAY SUAREZ: Finally tonight, remembering Helen Suzman, the outspoken anti-apartheid South African politician who died today. She talked to Robert MacNeil in 1989 about international efforts to bring about change in South Africa.

ROBERT MACNEIL, NewsHour anchor: You’ve been criticized by some of the more militant South African nationalists and by some people in this country for your opposition to sanctions. Just tell me briefly why you have opposed sanctions.

HELEN SUZMAN, Anti-apartheid activist: Well, for economic reasons. I don’t believe that reducing the economy to a wasteland and causing massive unemployment in South Africa is a positive step. I think it is counterproductive.

First of all, it undermines the strongest weapon that black people, presently anyway, can use in South Africa to overcome the differences in privilege and power and wealth in South Africa and that is strong trade unionism, where the demands will go well beyond the workplace, but only if the trade unions are strong, if people are employed, and, indeed, if the majority of skilled workers in South Africa are black people.

Now, any undermining of that, I believe, is counterproductive.

ROBERT MACNEIL: But hasn’t it been the sanctions that have already been voted by the United States and other Western countries and the threat of further or more extreme sanctions which has brought the nationalists to making the concessions they’ve just made?

HELEN SUZMAN: Well, it’s been an ongoing process. I mean, there have been many changes in South Africa over the last 10 years, long before sanctions were applied. And there’s no doubt international pressures certainly play their part. No country likes to be considered a pariah by the rest of the Western world.

ROBERT MACNEIL: But that’s just a moral question. I mean…

HELEN SUZMAN: It’s a moral question.

ROBERT MACNEIL: On the economic grounds, are you saying the sanctions have had no effect and have only had a negative effect?

HELEN SUZMAN: I think the effect that they’ve had is negative, because it’s created more unemployment, and that’s a serious matter in a country like South Africa, which has a minimal safety net of social security. There’s no dole; there are no food stamps. So it’s a pretty dire experience for a man to lose his job.

And I believe to try and render one of the few countries on the continent of Africa that is economically viable into a non-viable state is counterproductive.

RAY SUAREZ: Helen Suzman retired from parliament in 1989 and died today in Johannesburg. She was 91.