Veteran apartheid foe Helen Suzman dies at 91

Daughter: She showed that one person can make a difference.

helen suzman 88 (photo credit: )
helen suzman 88
(photo credit: )
Helen Suzman, the Jewish politician known for her articulate struggle against apartheid, died in South Africa on Thursday at the age of 91. Her daughter, Frances Jowell, said a private funeral would be held this weekend and a public memorial service in February. "I can tell you that she passed away peacefully at her home in Johannesburg this morning," Jowell told The Jerusalem Post by telephone. "She's been quite frail and tired lately. She really wanted to visit Israel, but she had stopped travelling abroad." Jowell said Suzman was survived by two daughters and two grandchildren, one of whom - her son, Danny Jowell - happened to be in Israel Thursday on holiday from England with his wife and child when he heard the news. He and the rest of the family were flying to Johannesburg for the funeral, she said. Suzman was forced to cancel a trip to Israel in 2006 after falling and breaking her hip in Johannesburg. During her long political career, she was generally supportive of Israel, but critical of its ties with apartheid South Africa. Although she never hid her Judaism, it was never the basis of her political struggle for human rights in South Africa. "I'm a secular Jew, but I am Jewish," Suzman once told the Post. "And I fought apartheid as a human being, not as a Jew." Suzman was an opposition parliamentarian for 36 years, from 1953 until her retirement in 1989, becoming well known around the world for speaking out eloquently against the government's racist policies. She was considered a constant thorn in the side of the ruling National Party. From 1961 to 1974, Suzman was the sole representative of the liberal Progressive Party in parliament. She represented the Houghton constituency, which had a large number of Jewish residents. Suzman was a good friend of Nelson Mandela, who is now 90 and lives in Houghton. She visited him several times during his imprisonment on Robben Island, beginning in 1967, and stood at his side when, as president, he signed the new constitution in 1996. "It was an odd and wonderful sight to see this courageous woman peering into our cells and strolling around our courtyard," Mandela wrote in his autobiography. "She was the first and only woman ever to grace our cells." Suzman was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize, and received a string of international awards, including the United Nations Award for Human Rights. She had been invited to Israel three years ago to deliver the Sir Isaiah Berlin memorial lecture at Yakar's Center for Social Concern in Jerusalem. In her prepared speech faxed to the Post, which she never delivered, Suzman said she was "hopeful but not optimistic" about South Africa's future and that of its small Jewish community. She was reticent to say anything political about Israel, but was critical of the close ties between the Israeli and South African government during apartheid. "They had a close association involving the supply of technology from Israel to South Africa and permission from the South African government for money to be sent [by Jews] to Israel," she said. "I cannot comment on the situation in Israel, except to say that I understand the difficulties of combating suicide bombers and a generation of Palestinians who have been brought up to hate Jews and who refuse to recognize the existence of the State of Israel," she told Ynet in 2005. "However, policies which inflict great hardships on Arabs will certainly not win the sympathy of the outside world, and I hope the withdrawal from Gaza will improve the situation." Suzman was born in the mining town of Germiston on November 7, 1917, to Lithuanian immigrant couple Samuel and Frieda Gavronsky. She attended the Parktown Convent school in Johannesburg, which honored her "lifelong struggle for justice and human rights" five years ago with a rose garden. In 1937, she married Moses Meyer Suzman, a top physician, and they had two daughters. She studied economics at the University of the Witwatersrand, where she later lectured until she became an MP for the United Party in 1959. Suzman retired from politics in 1989, with then-Democratic Alliance leader Tony Leon, also a Jew, succeeding her as MP for Houghton. During her long political career, she spoke out forcefully against the conditions under which black people were forced to live, their lack of job opportunities, and the pass system that restricted their movement. Her greatest achievement was considered to be the ultimate abolition of the so-called "pass laws" and other racist legislation. She became, as she put it, an "honorary ombudsman" for all those people who had no vote and no MP. "I had a wonderful opportunity to use the parliamentary stage to bring the world's attention to what was going on," she told the Associated Press in an interview on her 90th birthday. Suzman became famous internationally for her fiery rhetoric and repartee against the apartheid regime's policies, incessantly asking uncomfortable questions in parliament. A National Party minister once complained to her that "you put these questions just to embarrass South Africa overseas," to which she replied, "It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa. It is your answers." She was jeered by her Afrikaner rivals in parliament with taunts such as "Go back to Moscow," or "Go back to Israel." Suzman's arch-foe was former president P.W. Botha, who called her "Mother Superior" and once accused her of complicity in the 1966 assassination of Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid. "He stood up in parliament and said in Afrikaans that I and my fellow liberals arranged this, it's all your fault." she told the Post in an interview after Botha's death two years ago. "He was made to apologize to me in private in the speaker's office afterwards." "There is an important lesson to be learned from Helen Suzman's years of service to the people of South Africa," wrote a former political colleague, Colin Eglin. "It is a lesson to be learned by those who say despairingly, 'What is the use? What can one person do?' Helen has shown that one person can make a difference." AP contributed to this report.