helen suzman, 1917-2008

Helen Suzman, a leader in the struggle for justice, has died at the age of 91.

Suzman was a tireless, and often lonely, voice for the end of apartheid in her native South Africa. As the only Member of Parliament representing the Progressive Party, she was probably the most recognized white anti-apartheid activist. She was an early champion (and later a friend) of Nelson Mandela, the only woman who ever visited the political prisoners on Robben Island.

From the New York Times obituary:
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."

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.

"I am not frightened of you — I never have been, and I never will be," she told Prime Minister Botha in a parliamentary exchange in the late 1970s. "I think nothing of you."

For his part, Mr. Botha called her "a vicious little cat." 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.

Anti-apartheid work was my first involvement in activism. When I was in university, the movement to persuade US businesses (including universities) to divest funds in South Africa was in full swing, not unlike the activism now around Israel.

Suzman disagreed with the divestment strategy, so she was a controversial figure in the movement. To me, though, she was thrilling: a woman, standing alone, unapologetic and unafraid, speaking truth to power.

1 comment:

David Cho said...

I heard her interviewed by Terry Gross on NPR on the way home. The aired portion focused pretty much on her opposition to the divestment strategy. She was a real delight to listen to.