Monday, January 05, 2009

Helen Suzman: Cricket in a Thorn Tree

Helen Suzman was buried yesterday in a private Jewish ceremony in Johannesburg. Suzman, who died on New Year’s Day aged 91, was one of South Africa’s greatest anti-apartheid campaigners and a true independent spirit. She was a courageous parliamentarian for 36 years, a third of which she was the sole independent voice. "I used to put 200 questions a session," she told CNN last year. "They were all of course designed to expose the atrocities. I made good use of my parliamentary position."

Helen Suzman was born in the mining town of Germiston, east of Johannesburg, on 7 November 1917. Her parents were both Jewish Lithuanians who had fled anti-Semitism in Europe. In 1937 she married a doctor named Moses Meyer Suzman with whom she had two daughters. She became interested in politics after the disastrous 1948 election which brought the National Party to power and entrenched the apartheid system.

She successfully ran for the South African parliament in 1953 as the United Party Member for Houghton, a prosperous and largely-Jewish suburb near Johannesburg. Suzman quickly established herself as a thorn in the side of the new regime and former President PW Botha called her a "vicious little cat". The feeling was mutual; she called him “an obnoxious bully”. In 1959 she joined eleven other liberal MPs who formed the liberal Progressive party, which supported the rights of all citizens, regardless of race and creed, and a dismantling of the apartheid system. The party was annihilated at the ballot box in 1961 and Suzman was the only one of the dozen to retain her seat.

She remained the lone parliamentarian voice of anti-discrimination throughout the 1960s and early 1970s. In 1963 she railed against the law which gave police powers to detain suspects for 90 days without trial, which, she said, brought South Africa "further into the morass of a totalitarian state". In 1967 she visited Nelson Mandela in prison cell on Robben Island and the admiration was mutual. Suzman said she knew immediately “that this was a man of considerable courage”. In return, Nelson Mandela was equally glowing, “It was an odd and wonderful sight to see this courageous woman peering into our cells and strolling around our courtyard, he wrote. “She was the first and only woman ever to grace our cells."

In the 1980s, her greatest success was to see the abolition of the pass laws as part of the slow and uneven unravelling of apartheid legislation. She finally retired from parliament in 1989 and served on a variety of top public institutions. These included the Independent Electoral Commission that oversaw the country's first multiracial elections in 1994. She stood by Mandela's side when he signed the new constitution in 1996 as South Africa's first black president. But she never stopped being controversial. In 2001 she was declared an "Enemy of the State" of Zimbabwe after openly criticising the Robert Mugabe regime. It was a perverse honour she took great pride in.

Today, the director of the Helen Suzman Foundation Raenette Taljaard paid tribute to Suzman in the South African newspaper The Times. Taljaard had known Suzman for the last 15 years and said she (Suzman) had a strong sense of what she liked and disliked and had “no ambiguities or shades of grey for her between right and wrong”. Equally, said Taljaard, when Suzman’s academic research led her deeper into the injustices of labour migration in South Africa, she quickly realised that she had a role to play. She was society’s “cricket in a thorn tree who would speak truth to power with a clear moral purpose in a country that had lost its moral compass.”

Suzman continued to campaign for better conditions for blacks to the end of her life. On her 90th birthday, she expressed disillusionment with the lack of progress in addressing crime, unemployment and poverty in South Africa. "Masses of black people are very disappointed with lack of delivery of housing, water and sanitation," she told AP. But no one could be disappointed with Suzman. She delivered to the end.

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