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She was an international icon, she was Jewish and would have been 100

  • HelenSuzman
Never in the annals of South Africa’s Jewish community has a single person - and a woman at that - made the same global impact as the late Helen Suzman, who, had she lived, would have turned 100 on Tuesday.
by SUZANNE BELLING | Nov 09, 2017

She, with Nelson Mandela, whom she admired unequivocally and visited during his incarceration on Robben Island, was a household name internationally in the anti-apartheid struggle and made a towering contribution to liberating this country and bringing about democracy, which she lived to witness in 1994.

“Her life was dedicated to seeking justice,” Francis Antonie, director of the Helen Suzman Foundation (HSF), told the Beit Emanuel congregation in a guest sermon last Friday.

This was one of several celebrations of Suzman’s life - including at the Holy Family Convent, adjacent to the shul, in a plenary session at the HSF, an address by Mosiuoa Lekota, president of Cope, and the commemorative issue of stamps in Suzman’s honour, with an address by former SA President Kgalema Motlanthe on “Power and privilege in politically uncertain times”.

Born in Germiston to Jewish parents from Lithuania, Samuel and Frieda Gavronsky, Suzman attended Parktown Convent, before going to Wits, where she qualified as an economist and statistician. She interrupted her studies in 1937 to marry Dr Moses Suzman, but returned to university lecturing in 1944, later giving up teaching to enter politics.

She had two daughters, Frances, an art historian, who lives in London, and Patricia, a medical specialist in Boston.

She was elected as a United Party Member of Parliament in 1953, serving the Houghton constituency.

In 1959, she and 11 other liberal members of the UP broke away to form the Progressive Party, but in the 1961 election, all her peers lost their seats, leaving her the sole anti-apartheid parliamentarian. She remained the only representative of her party in the House of Assembly for 13 years, when eventually she was joined by four others.

The only English-speaking Jewish woman in a parliament dominated by Calvinist Afrikaner men, she was once accused by a minister of asking questions that embarrassed South Africa. Her reply was: “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa, it is your answers.”

She was constantly harassed regarding her liberalism and Jewishness. She was frequently called upon to “go back to Israel!”

As the white opposition numbers in Parliament grew after the mid-1970s, the Progressive Party merged with Harry Schwarz’s Reform Party, to become the Progressive Reform Party.

It was renamed the Progressive Federal Party and was joined in Parliament by liberal colleagues such as Colin Eglin. It is now known as the Democratic Alliance.

She spent 36 years in Parliament, with her party then again called the Progressive Party.

As an MP, she used her prison visiting privileges to go to Robben Island, where she met and befriended Nelson Mandela and other inmates, as well as inspecting their living conditions.

With Mandela, it was the start of a long relationship of mutual respect and friendship.

She was among those who persuaded Nelson Mandela to drop the ANC’s revolutionary programme in favour of an evolutionary approach, retaining a market economy and a parliamentary democracy.

The ANC and SACP, however, were critical of her methods. She was denounced as an agent of colonialism and for her failure under apartheid to back sanctions.

But Mandela was steadfast in his admiration for her.

He said: “The consistency with which you defended the basic values of freedom and the rule of law over the last three decades, has earned you the admiration of many South Africans.”

Her successor in the Houghton constituency and later leader of the DA, Tony Leon, told the SA Jewish Report: “When Helen Suzman turned 90, 10 years ago, I telephoned her from Harvard where I was a Fellow and unable to attend her celebrations and reminded her that she had outlived both the Russian Revolution and apartheid and the other monstrosities of the 20th century.

“She found this very amusing and her humour, her indefatigable courage and her clarity of principle, helped to achieve the transformation of her country into a democracy under the rule of law, her essential purpose in her 36 years in Parliament.

“I had the honour of succeeding her as Member of Parliament for Houghton,” he said, “and her stellar example provided a durable road map for public service and the purpose in politics.”

Suzman was awarded 27 honorary doctorates from universities around the world and was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize. She received many other awards from religious and human rights organisations globally.

Queen Elizabeth 2, of Great Britain and head of the Commonwealth, made Suzman an honorary Dame Commander (Civil Division) in 1989.

Suzman was also voted among the Top 100 Great South Africans in a television series.

In March 2011, Liberia issued a postage stamp to honour Suzman, referring to her as “one of the legendary heroes of Africa”.

The South African Jewish Board of Deputies’ Human Rights Award to those who had made an outstanding contribution to the cause of human rights in South Africa, was given to Suzman in 2006, by the then national chairman, Michael Bagraim, who is today himself a DA member of Parliament.

In the introduction to the award, he said: “This year, the Board has decided to honour one of the towering figures in the saga of South Africa’s journey to democracy, the legendary Helen Suzman.

“Few, if any, members of our Jewish community have been as acclaimed as this brave and brilliant woman, who fought so tenaciously, for so long, and under such difficult circumstances for justice in our country.

“She was a source of pride to Jews everywhere and, without ever seeking it for herself, became an international icon feted the world over.”

The illuminated citation presented to her read: “The SA Jewish Board of Deputies, on behalf of the South African Jewish community, hereby acknowledges your outstanding contribution to the fight for justice and democracy in South Africa.

“During the darkest days of apartheid years, you were in the forefront of those who fought for the rights of the oppressed majority. Long before apartheid’s demise and the ushering in of a democratic society, the dedication, vision and unswerving moral courage you unfailingly displayed, had made you a legend in your own lifetime.

“Your indefatigable stand against injustice was an inspiring example for human rights activists throughout the world. For many years, you fought a lone battle in Parliament on behalf of the Progressive Party in opposing the apartheid system, in the process winning the respect of even your most inflexible opponents.

“Following the transition to non-racial democracy, you have continued to affirm the liberal values that underpinned your life’s mission, despite the denigration in some quarters of the role played by the liberal establishment in overthrowing apartheid.

“The Jewish people throughout the world were honoured by its association with you. Your Jewish origin was sometimes used against you, yet it was always something that you affirmed with pride. This, coupled with your many outstanding achievements, has made you a role model for the Jewish youth of today and for the generations to come.

“The name ‘Helen Suzman’ has become synonymous with fighting for justice, no matter how formidable the odds. We, the South African Jewish Board of Deputies, salute you for the momentous contribution you have made to achieving peace and democracy in our country.”

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