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JANUARY 2, 2009 6:31PM

In Memoriam: Helen Suzman

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Cuchulain stirred,
Stared on the horses of the sea, and heard
The cars of battle and his own name cried;
And fought with the invulnerable tide.

               - W.B.Yeats   Cuchulain's Fight with the Sea (The Rose 1893)



The image of Cuchulain surely brings to mind Nelson Mandela fighting the in the end not so invulnerable tide.  But it reminds me equally of the diminutive woman next to him.  She was Helen Suzman, who died yesterday in Johannesberg at the age of 91.

From 1953 to 1989 she was a Member of the (all white, of course) South African Parliament and for most of that time she was the only  voice in that forum against the apartheid regime. The nominal opposition party - the United Party, under whose colors she was first elected - went along with the draconian  laws  in the name of fighting communism.  She broke away from UP to form the Progressive Party and was re-elected  in 1961, the year after the Sharpeville massacre; she retired in 1989, a few months before Mandela's release from prison and South Africa's evolution to multi-racial democracy. On December 10, 1996, International Human Rights Day, Helen Suzman was the only passenger accompanying President Mandela in his limousine, at his personal invitation, as he signed the new South African Constitution into law. The ceremony was held in Sharpeville.


"I hate bullies. I stand for simple justice, equal opportunity and human rights: the indispensable elements in a democratic society - and well worth fighting for."                                              

                                                                            - Helen Suzman


Her standing up to the physically intimidating thugs of the National Party (Verwoerd, Vorster, Botha) is well documented. She was reviled as "Communist" (which she was not), "Jew" (which she was) and naturally "Kaffir lover".  She received abusive phone calls, hate mail, death threats. And what could a lone Parliamentarian achieve against 164 others implacably opposed to her cause? Let Margaret Marshall, current Chief Justice of the Massachusetts Supreme Court (she wrote the opinion upholding same sex marriage), a native of South Africa herself, tell the story(1):

"Helen Suzman did more than shout aloud her condemnation of each new oppressive law. She was the only representative willing to see disenfranchised black South Africans as part of her constituency. She counted among her constituency political prisoners, and they included President Mandela on Robben Island.

When he was first sent to Robben Island, President Mandela describes in his autobiography, he was refused access to all books, newspapers, radios, or other sources of learning. Because of the persistent year-after-year efforts of Helen Suzman, the prison authorities finally relented and allowed political prisoners to receive books and, ultimately, to enroll in courses of education that they could take by correspondence. President Mandela was one of those who made effective use of that small privilege, not only for himself but for all prisoners serving long prison sentences. Members of the African National Congress who had never had an opportunity to finish high school were now enrolled in a lifetime of learning, albeit behind bars. Some learned to read and to write while they were incarcerated. Others studied for their GED, and then undergraduate and even graduate degrees. They learned other languages. They learned the histories of other peoples. They learned the history of Afrikaners in South Africa. They learned their own history. And learning played a critical role in their survival."


"And they could take everything from me except my mind and my heart."

                               - Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela



                                             Helen Suzman at rally in South Africa in the 1970's

In the 1970's she often came to Cambridge, Massachusetts. She had a daughter at University here, she was an indefatigable speaker against apartheid in various forums, Harvard invested her with a Doctor of Laws honoris causa in 1976Given her renown, the South African government did not wish to risk further international opprobrium by  restricting her travel or "banning" her.

She fell afoul of the vocal advocates for  South African divestment  at Harvard who picketed and disrupted one of her speeches  yelling "White puppet" among the more printable epithets.  As one who had been confronted by much worse in her time than long-haired undergraduates, she was not shy in her response. In her pronounced Oxford accent, she said: "Damned nerve. I've spent all my life fighting the government, and not from the comfort of 9000 miles away." (2) By nature a moderate, she supported the Sullivan principles which demanded foreign companies desegregate and provide fair and equal employment opportunities rather than totally divest, which could cripple the economy and hurt poor people (blacks and coloreds) disproportionately.

Even after retirement, literally till the very end, she stayed active in public affairs, never afraid to court controversy.

After Nelson Mandela's retirement, she was loudly critical of his now-disgraced successor, Thabo Mkebi, for running a corrupt government which did nothing to help the poor in the country, for his stance on AIDS  and for supporting Robert Mugabe of Zimbabwe, whom she detested.

A self-described "secular Jew" and  "passive Zionist" she was active in Jewish causes, arousing the wrath of left-wing Jewish intellectuals (such as Nobelist Nadine Gordimer) for refusing to sign a petition condemning Israel for its 2006 incursion into Lebanon. She was offended by the Cabinet Minister co-authoring the petition who  compared the behavior of Israelis to that of Nazis (3).

And in a cause close to this author's heart, Helen Suzman, then well into her 80's, was an active champion for the decriminalization of marijuana. A lifelong fan of cricket in a cricket-mad country, she was particularly incensed when one of  SA's best players, Herschelle Gibbs, was suspended in 2001 in the notorious "dagga" scandal (and South Africa lost to arch-rival West Indies).

Suzman wrote in a letter to the press: "For recreational purposes, it is far less harmful than alcohol. It has many medical uses. (It is) an easy cash crop to grow, and a useful source of income for impoverished, rural people. Our politicians should grasp the nettle and deal with South Africa's outmoded attitude towards dagga."


Prime Minister John Vorster: "What are you and your Communist friends trying to do with South Africa?"

 Mrs. Suzman (coolly): "We are trying to stop you."


Hazel Singer posted earlier today, with excellent links to sites detailing Helen Suzman's life and contributions.The Helen Suzman Foundation has a complete biography. Judy Rensberger's 1974 profile for the Alicia Patterson Foundation provides a wonderful picture of Mrs. Suzman in her prime.  Fiona Forde has a beautiful and touching article about Helen Suzman's last months, bright and sprightly as ever.  Peter Sullivan's tribute includes some great examples of her legendary wit.


(1) Margaret H. Marshall excerpt from1999 Certificate Address  © 1999 by the President and Fellows of Harvard College. All rights reserved.

 (2) The Harvard Crimson  November 3, 1979

(3) The Minister in question is Ronnie Kasrils, who is Jewish. The South African Human Rights Commission opined that Kasrils' speech did not amount to hate speech. Mrs. Suzman is quoted as telling the petitioners to "go jump in the lake, but not in so many words."

Photo credit: Telegraph.co.uk



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I so admired this woman. Thanks for writing about her.

Exceptional woman and an exceptional tribute.
Kudos my friend...

Thanks for the post.
What a remarkable woman. I'm so glad you penned this biography and tribute to her.
What an astonishing creature! Would that we all had such courage. Thank you mon petit chiot!
Never even heard of her before, and now I have. Thanks for correcting that situation.
It is so important to celebrate such a life, that people know and remember what she did, who and how she was. Ah, the world needs more with her mettle.

Thanks CCC, the caliber of your writing never disappoints.
Thank you all for your comments.

She really was the most remarkable and (M. Chariot as usual gets it precisely right) courageous woman I've ever had the honor of meeting. Most of us cannot imagine the vituperation and filth thrown at her day after day, and not just in Parliament. Cartoons in Afrikaans newspapers invariably pictured her as this harridan with a hooked nose, mocking her as dumb and deluded and worse. And it was a fight she fought alone, at least in Parliament, for most of her thirty six years there.

A word about her constituency: it was (and is) one of the wealthiest suburbs of Jo'berg. She was continuously re-elected. But she really chose to represent the literally disenfranchised in their quest for the right to vote, equal treatment under the law and human rights.

And throughout it all, she maintained her vision, her balance and her legendary wit. A book could be filled with her famous ripostes in debates or her delightful (and deadly) characterizations of opponents over a couple of Scotches (never more but rarely less).

R.I.P. Helen Suzman
One of the most important political tools in Helen Suzman's arsenal was to raise issues in Parliament that the government censored in the press. The press HAD to report on Parliamentary discourse and Helen brought up various government atrocities, humanitarian issues, and other injustices. It was a remarkable insight into how to use the system against itself. I already miss her dearly.
I had heard of Helen Suzman but had no idea she was such an interesting and courageous person. Thanks for this educational and edifying post!
You have a masterly way with epigraphs. The Yeats quote is a great lead-in to a wonderful piece about a great lady.
Thank you for sharing the story of a remarkable person.
Incredible post!
What an edgy, fearless and wonderful woman. I am so glad that she lived to see appartied dismantled.
Hazel: Thank you. You make a very important and substantive point. Plus the fact that she was always thorough and thoroughly prepared made her questions in Parliament (2262 in her 13 years as the lone Prog) "largely inform the data base on South Africa" as Peter Sullivan (link at the end of the main article above -- OS not allowing external links in comment editor!) so aptly puts it.

Sullivan also recounts probably her most famous rejoinder:
When an angry MP suggested she asked questions to besmirch the country's name abroad, she was quick to retort: "I don't think it's the questions, it's the answers that besmirch …"
Sanjuro, SB, Faith, o'steph: Thank you for your comments. Least I could do in the memory of a great woman, great human being, especially one not so well known here, who fought relentlessly for the down-trodden.
A fine, well-written tribute to a great woman. An odd juxtaposition, the "passive Zionism" of Ms. Suzman with the, say, hyperactive Zionism of the subject of your prior post. Let me say I think Ms. Suzman comes off a million times better.
Your memoriam was much more interesting than what I read in the papers. Thank you.
I also had never heard of her. At the risk of sounding repetitive, thank you also, not just for fixing that, but for doing it so well.
Her bravery and passion will be missed. The world needs more Helen Suzmans. R.I.P.
Thank you, all.

CM, the juxtaposition just happened and yes, the difference is startling, isn't it.

Merwoman, that's quite a compliment. Thank you.

Thank you, Mrs. Michaels and Mrs. Peel (forever, never Emma), I doff my bowler to you.

Thank you all.