Hero’s farewell for Helen Suzman

5 January 2009

Helen Suzman, veteran South African politician and fearless campaigner against apartheid, was laid to rest in West Park Cemetery, Johannesburg on Sunday at a funeral attended by hundreds, including South African President Kgalema Motlanthe and a host of other dignitaries from across the country’s political spectrum.

Suzman died on 1 January 2009 at the age of 91.

“History must record that [Suzman] was one of the great freedom fighters for the liberation of South Africa from the tyranny of apartheid,” South African Chief Rabbi Warren Goldstein said in his eulogy.

“The tools of her liberation struggle were not guns, or the politics of resistance, but the use of the machinery, the beast of the apartheid Parliament, to attack the system itself.”

Suzman, one of the country’s longest-serving members of Parliament, fought a lonely battle from within the apartheid legislature for the right of all South Africans to vote.

Achmat Dangor, chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, said in a statement on Thursday that South Africa had lost “a great patriot and a fearless fighter against apartheid.

“We remember how Mrs Suzman was one of the very few members of Parliament who protested against apartheid legislation, including the 1 May 1963 promulgation of the General Law Amendment Act or ‘the Ninety Day Detention Law’ – the beginning of South Africa’s notorious system of detention without trial.”

According to the Helen Suzman Foundation, Suzman was born in the mining town of Germiston, east of Johannesburg, on 7 November 1917 to Samuel and Frieda Gavronsky, both immigrants from Eastern Europe who had come to South Africa to escape the restrictions imposed on Jews by Russia.

She studied and lectured in economics and economic history at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, where her interest in politics grew, partly through her involvement in the South African Institute of Race Relations, a liberal organisation that conducted research on racial issues.

In 1953 she won the nomination contest for the Johannesburg constituency of Houghton – a safe United Party (UP) seat – and on 14 March of that year she became an MP.

Author and human rights activist David Welsh writes in his short biography on the Suzman Foundation’s website: “Dissatisfaction with the UP’s shilly-shallying on racial issues grew among the small band of liberals in the caucus. Finally, in 1959, dissatisfaction boiled over into open revolt, and 12 MPs, including Helen, broke away and subsequently formed the Progressive Party, with an openly liberal programme of extending rights to all South Africans, but with a qualified franchise.

“The qualifications, based on educational and property criteria, survived until 1978, although Helen had privately advocated universal adult suffrage well before this date.”

From 1961 until 1974, when she was joined by five other Progressive Party MPs, Suzman was the only member of Parliament who consistently and unequivocally opposed discriminatory legislation in South Africa, including a spate of security laws that left the rule of law in tatters.

“In a patriarchal society like South Africa, discrimination against women was also rife,” Welsh notes. “For many years the quest for equal status was one of Helen’s main concerns, and she achieved considerable success.”

Her workload, during her solitary 13 years in Parliament, was prodigious. “She grabbed every opportunity to speak, to put parliamentary questions, and to intercede with ministers on behalf of the many hapless individuals and communities who were caught up in the merciless bureaucratic toils of apartheid.

“In a typical parliamentary session she spoke on average in 15 ministerial votes (in which the performance of a minister and his department was debated), participated in numerous debates on bills, and asked some 200 parliamentary questions – which elicited valuable information that she put to good use in her speeches inside and outside Parliament.

“In a famous exchange a certain minister shouted: ‘You put these questions just to embarrass South Africa overseas.’ To which Helen coolly replied: ‘It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa – it is your answers.'”

In 1967, Suzman visited Nelson Mandela in prison on Robben Island for the first time. Remembering the visit, Mandela later said: “Mrs Suzman was one of the few, if not the only, member of Parliament who took an interest in the plight of political prisoners.”

He added: “It was an odd and wonderful sight to see this courageous woman peering into our cells and strolling around our courtyard. She was the first and only woman ever to grace our cells.”

When, as President of South Africa, Mandela bestowed on Suzman the Order of Meritorious Service in 1997, he said of her courage: “It is a courage born of the yearning for freedom; of hatred of oppression, injustice and inequity whether the victim be oneself or another; a fortitude that draws its strength from the conviction that no person can be free while others are unfree.”

In her final speech in Parliament, Welsh writes, Suzman did “what no MP had done before: she proposed a motion of censure on a judge who had imposed a derisory sentence on two white farmers who had beaten an African labourer to death. Predictably, the motion failed, but the episode caused a national furore. The judge in question was subsequently transferred away from actual court work.”

Suzman remained active in public life after stepping down as an MP, serving as president of the SA Institute of Race Relations from 1991 to 1993, serving on the Independent Electoral Commission that oversaw the country’s first democratic election in 1994, and serving as a member of the statutory Human Rights Commission for several years thereafter.

Her achievements have been acknowledged by numerous awards and honours, including over 25 honorary doctorates from local and international universities, two nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize, and the International Freedom Prize from Liberal International in 2002. In 1989 she was made a Dame of the British Empire, a rare honour for a foreigner.

Welsh adds: “A perverse ‘honour’, of which she is inordinately proud, was being declared an ‘Enemy of the State’ by Zimbabwe’s Robert Mugabe in 2001.”

SAinfo reporter

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