S. African activist cancels Israel visit

Helen Suzman "hopeful, not optimistic" about future of Jews in South Africa.

Helen Suzman, the longtime South African Jewish anti-apartheid activist, was forced to cancel a trip to Israel this week after falling and breaking her hip in Johannesburg. Suzman, who had been scheduled to deliver the Sir Isaiah Berlin memorial lecture at Yakar's Center for Social Concern in Jerusalem on Thursday, underwent successful partial hip replacement surgery at a Johannesburg hospital, a spokeswoman said. In her prepared speech obtained by The Jerusalem Post, the veteran politician is "hopeful but not optimistic" about South Africa's future and that of its small Jewish community. Suzman, 88, says she is "too old to contemplate emigrating" from South Africa. "Indeed, I never did consider doing so, except for five minutes after the 1948 election [when the National Party came to power and introduced apartheid]," she quips, "mainly because I hate domestic work and can't cook!" Noting that there were approximately 125,000 Jews in South Africa in 1970, she is pleased that as many as 80,000 remain today under the African National Congress government. "Jews, like other skilled whites, left because they doubted whether employment opportunities would be available to their children owing to the adoption of affirmative action," she says, acknowledging that "some left because of the uncertain political future." But, she hastens to add, the Jewish community is very integrated, there is less "marriage out" than in other countries and there is an increasing adherence to Orthodoxy. "Apparently, the admonition of [Chabad] Rebbe [Menachem Mendel] Schneerson in the US in the '70s that Jews should stay in South Africa and uphold the faith is being heeded," she says. Suzman argues that although the attitude of the Board of Deputies, the mouthpiece of the Jewish community, has varied over the years, there were "a disproportionate number of Jewish individuals, liberals and communists who were involved in openly opposing apartheid." Suzman, probably the best known of them all, does not directly address her attitude to Israel in her prepared speech, and had urged journalists not to ask her about it during her scheduled visit. But she does concede that the Israeli and apartheid governments "had a close association involving supply of technology from South Africa to Israel and permission from the South African government for money to be sent [by Jews] to Israel." Suzman says that 12 years of democracy have made South Africa a better country in many ways, but there is "growing dissatisfaction with the government's failure to deliver on its promise of 'a better life for all.'" Unemployment, she says, has risen to totally unacceptable levels, between 30 and 35 percent, and investment in job-producing projects has been disappointing, especially from overseas investors." This, she argues, is due to a decline in confidence in governance during Thabo Mbeki's presidency after that of the much-revered Nelson Mandela. Among other things, Suzman faults Mbeki for "his inexplicable denialist attitude to the treatment of the HIV/AIDS pandemic." She says AIDS has claimed 1.6 million lives, while up to six million people are currently infected, many of them between the ages of 16 and 35. And she slams Mbeki for his "quiet diplomacy" toward "Mad Bob" Mugabe in Zimbabwe, with its "1,000% inflation rate, the economy in free fall, and starving millions in a country that used to be considered the bread basket of Africa." As for South Africa, she argues that, although "the obnoxious racial and discriminatory laws [are] gone from the statute books," it has become a dominant-party state. "At present, the basic requirements for the maintenance of a sustainable democracy exist - the rule of law, a vigilant opposition, an independent judiciary, a free press and a proactive civil society," Suzman says. However, she adds, alarm bells are ringing because of the announced intention of the African National Congress (ANC) to "control all the levers of power." Already, she notes, the ANC has a huge parliamentary majority and controls the nine provincial governments and most of the town councils. She emphasizes, however, that "South Africa is not a basket case like so many other African states. It has valuable mineral resources, good infrastructure, excellent tourist attractions and beautiful seaside resorts." Suzman was an opposition parliamentarian for 36 years, from 1953 to 1989, becoming well known around the world for speaking out eloquently against racism. From 1961 to 1974 she was the sole representative of the liberal Progressive Party for the Houghton constituency, which had a large number of Jewish residents. Suzman visited Mandela several times during his imprisonment on Robben Island, and stood at his side when, as president, he signed the new constitution in 1996. In 2002, she was awarded the International Freedom Prize by Liberal International. An exhibition on Helen Suzman opened this year at Johannesburg's Cyril Harris Center in Houghton.