Helen Suzman, a brave voice of conscience in what was apartheid South Africa.
South Africa was long one of the world’s most repressive regimes, crushing blacks and other non-whites and their supporters to maintain absolute white rule.
This led to brutal clashes often killing or injuring untold numbers of people, most of them black. Surviving black leaders such as Nelson Mandela were frequently imprisoned, in his case for 27-years.
Censorship was tight and the government banned television cameras from showing the “unrest zones.” In this explosive environment blacks sometimes turned on blacks viewed as supporting the government.
Some blacks used the “necklace method,” putting a tire around a person’s neck, setting it ablaze and burning the person alive. The pain was so intense the victim screamed until collapsing in the stench of a small cloud of putrid gray smoke. Imminent death brought silence.
This was the environment confronted by Helen Suzman. The daughter of Jewish immigrants and married to a prominent doctor, she devoted her life to humanitarian causes and politics.
Helen served in the South African parliament from 1953 until 1989 and frequently spoke on behalf of black people, who had no voice in government. With the tight censorship they had little voice in the news media either
But when Helen spoke in parliament; her voice could not be censored nor could she be arrested for violating “banning orders,” or speaking as a “dangerous subversive.”
Despite the racial violence and other dangers that lurked in the shadows from whites or blacks, for many years she went to black townships [ghettos] and got to know large numbers of poverty driven black men, women and children and knew first hand of their plight.
They were hungry, had little medical care or education and many lived in shanties with no running water, toilets or electricity. She pressured the government for better living conditions for them.
Helen also met with black political leaders and attended many of their funerals or continued to call on them while they were in prison, trying to ensure their safety. One prisoner she got to know well was Nelson Mandela.
“Mrs. Suzman was one of the few, if not the only, member of parliament who took an interest in the plight of political prisoners,” Nelson Mandela said. “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.”
But Helen paid a price for her humanitarian actions. Death threats, obscene phone calls, insults and anti-Semitic statements were hurled at her and she was spied on by the government, which tapped her telephones, looking for a basis to arrest her.
As for those who listened to her phone calls, she responded by occasionally blowing a loud shrill whistle into the receiver.
However, for Helen to succeed in helping the racial minorities, it was crucial for her to get media coverage to tell their stories to build public sympathy and to make the government answerable.
“Parliament is the only place where laws can be repealed and the government can be held to account and information can be extracted,” Helen told New Yorker magazine. “I’ve built up a body of statistics by asking people questions – numbers of people detained, for instance, those prosecuted, those hanged. The press has found this valuable, and I’ve found the press valuable.”
When a government official accused her of embarrassing South Africa by asking such questions, Helen replied, “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa; it is your answers.”
In 1989 when she retired from parliament, one of her last acts was an attempt to impeach a judge who gave a white farmer a suspended sentence for beating to death a black laborer. She didn’t succeed but made her point that racial injustice could not continue indefinitely.
And it didn’t continue much longer, as blacks through boycotts and marches and unfortunately at times through violence brought intense pressure on the government to end apartheid, and to let them vote. With media visibility, in part through Helen’s work, their cause also captured the hearts and minds of many South Africans and people across the world. White ruled crumbled.
Through a series of negotiations between the government and the African National Congress, the leading black organization, apartheid came to end.
In 1994, South Africa held its first multiracial elections, electing Nelson Mandela president and a multi-racial parliament. But that didn’t silence Helen. While pleased with the change to multiracial democratic rule, she continued to hold the government accountable, as she voiced her concerns about government corruption and its lack of action to combat HIV/AIDS.
At this point, you may be wondering why Helen or anyone else would confront those in power. It’s hard, but for reasons of conscience and compassion, one finds the courage to hold a government accountable. Ultimately, a person of principle just cannot look the other way while others suffer.
It is when people don’t speak-up that once great nations collapse replaced by the tyranny of a few in the name of security for the many. It is an age old story and it threatens us today.
Throughout her life Helen spoke-up. But recently the brave and determined voice of this 5-foot, 3-inch dynamo finally fell silent.
At the age of 91, Helen died peacefully in her Johannesburg home. By the end of her life she had been nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize and had received numerous prestigious awards as an expression of gratitude for her work from vast numbers of grateful people.
Success Tip of the Week:
Today grave injustices are being committed by America and by others. Will you find the courage to speak for those with no voice who are the victims of war or poverty? Will you speak for those with little medical care who struggle to survive or whose children are hungry and sick and die of easily curable diseases?
Helen Suzman’s obituaries published 1/2/09 in The New York Times, Los Angeles Times and the BBC News contained extensive information and I thank each of those publications.
In the next KazanToday:
93-year-old fitness expert Terry Robinson offers advice for a long and healthy life