Friday, January 2, 2009

Helen Suzman, Relentless Challenger of Apartheid System, dies at 91

Helen Suzman with Nelson Mandela at his Soweto home in February, 1990.

Quite a striking picture. Mandela was released from Robben Island prison in February 1990.

The Johannesburg Times has a video of her talking of meeting Mandela.

Helen Suzman, the internationally renowned anti-apartheid campaigner who befriended the imprisoned Nelson Mandela and offered an often lonely voice for change among South Africa’s white minority, died in Johannesburg early on Thursday, a family member said. She was 91.

For decades, Mrs. Suzman was among the most venerated of white campaigners urging an end to racial rule. As the liberal Progressive Party’s lone representative in the all-white Parliament for 13 years until the mid-1970s, a period when many of apartheid’s most repressive features were being devised, she used her parliamentary immunity to speak out when other avenues of protest were harshly suppressed.
Surely it took courage to be a lone voice against apartheid.

While she challenged apartheid at a time of violent protests among the black majority, she advocated peaceful change. More controversially, she differed sharply with more radical campaigners inside and outside South Africa who were supportive of economic sanctions to press the country’s white rulers toward reform, saying sanctions would hurt poor blacks more than whites.

Again, a lone, courageous, voice. It became orthodoxy to support sanctions against South Africa, and to have opposed them would have earned one shunning.

To Mrs. Suzman’s frustration, this led some of her critics to say she was unwittingly helping to prolong apartheid. This was a variation on a critique she had long endured, and to some extent accepted — that by engaging in what was largely a charade of parliamentary politics in apartheid South Africa, she became complicit, however unwillingly, in the larger deceits of apartheid, which would ultimately be ended not by a small band of white dissenters, but by the more powerful forces of the black freedom struggle and external political pressure.

It did require outside pressure and black activism, but her lonely voice had some importance, without a doubt.

Diminutive, elegant and indefatigable, Mrs. Suzman confronted the forbidding Afrikaner prime ministers — Hendrik F. Verwoerd, John Vorster and P. W. Botha — who became synonymous with apartheid’s repression of the black and mixed-race populations. She was dismissive of the death threats she received by telephone and in the mail, and undaunted in her showdowns with the men she described as apartheid’s leading “bullies,” who in turn dismissed her as a “dangerous subversive” and a “sickly humanist.”

Sickly humanist; quite a badge of honor.

Shouts of “Go back to Moscow!” greeted her when she rose in Parliament, and, on at least one occasion, “Go back to Israel!” — a reference to her antecedents as the daughter of early 20th-century Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. After the 1976 Soweto riots, Mr. Vorster mocked her for beating with what he called her “pretty little pink hands” against apartheid, while secure in the knowledge, as he claimed, that she and other white opponents could continue to enjoy the privileged lives apartheid guaranteed without fear that their demands for an end to the racial laws would succeed.

Always the Jewish angle is available to anti-Semites who need a line of attack.

When a government minister once accused her of embarrassing South Africa with her parliamentary questions, she replied, “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa; it is your answers.”

Her home and office telephones were constantly tapped, an intrusion she liked to counter by blowing an ear-splitting whistle into the mouthpiece.

She did have spunk, clearly.

But perhaps because of her parliamentary immunity, a feature of their showpiece democracy that apartheid leaders guarded with care, she was never detained or subjected to one of the stifling “banning orders” that apartheid leaders used to curb dissent by prohibiting people from attending political meetings, speaking in public or even leaving their homes.

And she kept getting elected to parliament.

Her opposition to economic sanctions made her a contentious figure among some apartheid opponents, including protesters on American college campuses, like Brandeis and Harvard, where she received honorary degrees. “I understand the moral abhorrence and pleasure it gives you when you demonstrate,” she told a New York audience in 1986. “But I don’t see how wrecking the economy of the country will ensure a more stable and just society.”

We can be so smug in our self-righteousness.

She rarely faced such criticism from South Africa’s best-known black leaders. Mr. Mandela spoke with affection of her visits to the Robben Island prison in the chilly Atlantic waters off Cape Town, where he was serving a life sentence imposed in 1964 and where he remained until he was moved to a mainland prison nearly 20 years later. Using her parliamentary visiting rights, she made her first trip in 1967 and returned frequently. “It was an odd and wonderful sight to see this courageous woman peering into our cells and strolling around our courtyard,” Mr. Mandela recalled in an interview when he was released in 1990 after serving 27 years. “She was the first and only woman ever to grace our cells.”


But while no longer in Parliament in her final years, she remained an acerbic critic of what she viewed as official wrongdoing, now by the country’s new black rulers. Only recently, she joined other prominent South Africans in demanding a fresh inquiry into dubious government arms contracts in the 1990s, some involving the president of the African National Congress, Jacob Zuma.


She ran for Parliament in Johannesburg’s upscale Houghton district and remained the district’s legislator from 1953 to 1989. She began as a member of the United Party, which had been usurped in 1949, after decades as South Africa’s governing party, by the Afrikaner-dominated National Party. It was the Nationalists, under Mr. Verwoerd, who codified and extended the existing racial laws, creating apartheid.

Helen Suzman in 1975.

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