ENOUGH has been said about the SABC’s ill-starred attempt to identify by public acclaim one hundred great South Africans. But perhaps the public now has a greater understanding of the chasm between greatness on the one hand; and celebrity or notoriety on the other.

One of the most extraordinary nominees, especially since he appeared so high on the list, is the golfer Gary Player. It is a matter of undisputed historical fact that Player was a notorious apologist and propagandist for apartheid. In his first autobiography he wrote, ‘I must say now, and clearly, that I am of the South Africa of Verwoerd and apartheid’. In the same book he speaks of maintaining ‘civilized values and standards amongst the alien barbarians’, describing the South Africa of the mid 1960s as ‘the finest country … I have no evidence that I live in a police state.’

By 1991 it was time for another version of the autobiography and some damage control. Player was now verlig [enlightened], a supporter of Dennis Worrell, arguing that apartheid was misguided. He clarified his position by saying that he preferred to stay out of politics, but had to operate within the laws of the times. He admits that he was paid by the government in the late 1970s to entertain foreign businessmen and explains that he was a professional sportsman. It is evident from his writing that Player is an intelligent and astute man, a person capable of considerable generosity towards individuals of all communities.

Interviewed recently on what now pretends to be SABC’s evening sports programme, he was at pains to say how much he admires Nelson Mandela, the man who was embarking on 27 long years of imprisonment as Player was writing his paeans of praise about apartheid. Some would call Player an opportunist, but this is probably a little harsh. His behaviour is actually far more mundane: a clear desire, characteristic of millions, to be politically correct, to conform and blend in amongst the established beliefs of the time.

A contemporary with whom he can be usefully compared is Helen Suzman. For one-third of her 36-year career in Parliament she was the only effective voice of opposition, courageously confronting the regime, asking endless questions about race classification, prisons, detention without trial, forced removal, pass offences and Bantu education; extracting information that constantly convicted the apartheid regime in the court of international opinion. In 1963 hers was the only vote against 90-day detention. For her pains she was sneeringly referred to as the Lady from Lithuania; but a truly great South African, Breyten Breytenbach, called her Our Lady of the Prisoners, ‘a living myth among the people inhabiting the world of shadows’.

Helen Suzman is the personification of the concept of speaking truth to power. Her enduring conscience has bridged very different times and her sharp mind is applied to current concerns such as AIDS, poverty, the arms deal and relations with reprobate nations such as Haiti and Zimbabwe. Her opinions are hard-hitting and well-constructed, but she continues to attract abuse. A recent example is a disgraceful piece of journalism by Jon Qwelane who trashes her parliamentary career and, by suggesting that it gave credibility to apartheid and racism, implies that she was a collaborator.

Plaudits for Player and brickbats for Suzman. Player, a person of shifting, chameleon-like convictions over the years, is officially rehabilitated and able to market himself as a paragon of the new South Africa, of which he is indeed representative in many ways. Helen Suzman, a woman of unflinching conviction and supreme courage in the face of political abuse, is vilified in the new South Africa just as she was in the old.

This tells us something very significant about political morality and standards. It appears that those who attract public favour and acclaim are inclined to defer to the political correctness of the times. Adherence to a set of principles unwaveringly applied to issues regardless of the party in power is not universally admired or valued. This is illustrated by the behaviour of post-liberation politicians, many of whom are no more than opportunistic carpet baggers. One, perhaps the only, thing they have in common is an overweening desire either to be in power, or as close to it as possible. Desmond Tutu put it well in his recent Nelson Mandela Lecture when he spoke of ‘uncritical, sycophantic, obsequious conformity’.

Our politicians are the litmus paper of public attitude. It is both extraordinary and alarming to realise that a legacy of our struggle against political evil is a continued deference to power that manifests itself not only in a fear of speaking out, but even contempt for those who have the courage to do so. What counts is a willingness to mouth the required phrases and genuflect before the new order. It is, however, a source of pride and relief for the country that it still has in high-profile places people who believe that analysis and criticism of the way political power is exercised, and to what end, is a more valuable contribution to society than kowtowing before that power. It is perhaps no coincidence, nor a surprise, that those who are doing this most successfully and fearlessly, or have done so in the past, are women: Patricia de Lille, Charlene Smith, Rhoda Kadalie, Mamphela Ramphele readily spring to mind, as well, of course, as Suzman herself.

This article was first published in The Witness on 7 December 2004 and entitled ‘Standing up to power’.

Further reading: Robin Renwick, Helen Suzman: Bright Star in a Dark Chamber (Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 2014); Joanna Strangwayes-Booth, A Cricket in the Thorn Tree: Helen Suzman and the Progressive Party (Johannesburg: Hutchinson, 1976).