Friday, January 2, 2009
Relentless Challenger of Apartheid System, Is Dead at 91
By JOHN F. BURNS and ALAN COWELL
Helen Suzman, the internationally renowned anti-apartheid campaigner who befriended the imprisoned Nelson Mandela and offered an often lonely voice for change among South Africa’s white minority, died in Johannesburg early on Thursday, a family member said. She was 91.
Her son-in-law, Jeffrey Jowell, a law professor in London, said she died peacefully at her home in the affluent northern suburbs of Johannesburg after a brief illness.
For decades, Mrs. Suzman was among the most venerated of white campaigners urging an end to racial rule. As the liberal Progressive Party’s lone representative in the all-white Parliament for 13 years until the mid-1970s, a period when many of apartheid’s most repressive features were being devised, she used her parliamentary immunity to speak out when other avenues of protest were harshly suppressed.
While she challenged apartheid at a time of violent protests among the black majority, she advocated peaceful change. More controversially, she differed sharply with more radical campaigners inside and outside South Africa who were supportive of economic sanctions to press the country’s white rulers toward reform, saying sanctions would hurt poor blacks more than whites.
To Mrs. Suzman’s frustration, this led some of her critics to say she was unwittingly helping to prolong apartheid. This was a variation on a critique she had long endured, and to some extent accepted — that by engaging in what was largely a charade of parliamentary politics in apartheid South Africa, she became complicit, however unwillingly, in the larger deceits of apartheid, which would ultimately be ended not by a small band of white dissenters, but by the more powerful forces of the black freedom struggle and external political pressure.
Among her friends, it was a reality Mrs. Suzman conceded, though she and many opponents of apartheid believed that it was important to keep the hopes of eventual democracy in the country alive and that she could help the victims of apartheid by her efforts to expose the evils of the system in and out of Parliament.
In a 1966 profile in The New York Times Magazine, Joseph Lelyveld, the newspaper’s correspondent in South Africa at the time, recounted one of her favorite stories, about an overeager dinner host who gave a black man serving her a lecture on her parliamentary achievements.
“Do you know who this is, John?” the host asked. “This is Helen Suzman, the champion of your cause — the champion of human rights in South Africa.”
“She waste her time,” John replied, as Mrs. Suzman retold it later, laughing brightly as she repeated the line. “She waste her time.”
Diminutive, elegant and indefatigable, Mrs. Suzman confronted the forbidding Afrikaner prime ministers — Hendrik F. Verwoerd, John Vorster and P. W. Botha — who became synonymous with apartheid’s repression of the black and mixed-race populations. She was dismissive of the death threats she received by telephone and in the mail, and undaunted in her showdowns with the men she described as apartheid’s leading “bullies,” who in turn dismissed her as a “dangerous subversive” and a “sickly humanist.”
Shouts of “Go back to Moscow!” greeted her when she rose in Parliament, and, on at least one occasion, “Go back to Israel!” — a reference to her antecedents as the daughter of early 20th-century Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. After the 1976 Soweto riots, Mr. Vorster mocked her for beating with what he called her “pretty little pink hands” against apartheid, while secure in the knowledge, as he claimed, that she and other white opponents could continue to enjoy the privileged lives apartheid guaranteed without fear that their demands for an end to the racial laws would succeed.
“I am not frightened of you — I never have been, and I never will be,” she told Prime Minister Botha in a parliamentary exchange in the late 1970s. “I think nothing of you.”
For his part, Mr. Botha called her “a vicious little cat.” When a government minister once accused her of embarrassing South Africa with her parliamentary questions, she replied, “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa; it is your answers.”
Her home and office telephones were constantly tapped, an intrusion she liked to counter by blowing an ear-splitting whistle into the mouthpiece.
But perhaps because of her parliamentary immunity, a feature of their showpiece democracy that apartheid leaders guarded with care, she was never detained or subjected to one of the stifling “banning orders” that apartheid leaders used to curb dissent by prohibiting people from attending political meetings, speaking in public or even leaving their homes.
Her opposition to economic sanctions made her a contentious figure among some apartheid opponents, including protesters on American college campuses, like Brandeis and Harvard, where she received honorary degrees. “I understand the moral abhorrence and pleasure it gives you when you demonstrate,” she told a New York audience in 1986. “But I don’t see how wrecking the economy of the country will ensure a more stable and just society.”
She rarely faced such criticism from South Africa’s best-known black leaders. Mr. Mandela spoke with affection of her visits to the Robben Island prison in the chilly Atlantic waters off Cape Town, where he was serving a life sentence imposed in 1964 and where he remained until he was moved to a mainland prison nearly 20 years later. Using her parliamentary visiting rights, she made her first trip in 1967 and returned frequently.
“It was an odd and wonderful sight to see this courageous woman peering into our cells and strolling around our courtyard,” Mr. Mandela recalled in an interview when he was released in 1990 after serving 27 years. “She was the first and only woman ever to grace our cells.”
On Thursday, the governing African National Congress paid tribute by saying in a statement that Mrs. Suzman “became a thorn in the flesh of apartheid by openly criticizing segregation of Blacks by a Whites-only apartheid system.” Mr. Mandela’s foundation issued a statement from its Johannesburg headquarters saying that South Africa had lost “a great patriot and a fearless fighter against apartheid.”
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, who forged a close friendship with Mrs. Suzman when they were leading proponents of peaceful change during the violent upheavals of the 1970s and 1980s, said in his statement that the country owed her an enormous debt. “She really was indomitable,” he said.
By the early 1990s, when apartheid gave way to black majority rule, there was widespread affection for Mrs. Suzman in black townships like Soweto, where many people knew her simply as Miss Helen.
But while no longer in Parliament in her final years, she remained an acerbic critic of what she viewed as official wrongdoing, now by the country’s new black rulers. Only recently, she joined other prominent South Africans in demanding a fresh inquiry into dubious government arms contracts in the 1990s, some involving the president of the African National Congress, Jacob Zuma.
Mrs. Suzman was born Helen Gavronsky on Nov. 17, 1917, in Germiston, a gold-mining town on the outskirts of Johannesburg. She was educated at the Parktown convent school in Johannesburg, and studied economics at the city’s Witwatersrand University. At the age of 19, in 1937, she married Moses Meyer Suzman, known as Mosie, a cardiologist, with whom she had two daughters, before returning to the university in 1944.
She is survived by her daughters, Frances, an art historian, and Patricia, a medical specialist.
Universities around the world awarded Mrs. Suzman 27 honorary doctorates, and she received numerous other honors from the United Nations and an array of religious and human rights groups around the world. Queen Elizabeth II made her an honorary dame, customary for citizens of countries other than Britain.
Mrs. Suzman traced her opposition to apartheid to her university years, when she studied South Africa’s racial laws and was incensed by what she learned, particularly by the so-called pass laws, which were fundamental to the apartheid system, restricting where blacks could live and work.
She ran for Parliament in Johannesburg’s upscale Houghton district and remained the district’s legislator from 1953 to 1989. She began as a member of the United Party, which had been usurped in 1949, after decades as South Africa’s governing party, by the Afrikaner-dominated National Party. It was the Nationalists, under Mr. Verwoerd, who codified and extended the existing racial laws, creating apartheid.
In 1959, impatient with the United Party’s tolerance of racial segregation, she became a founder of the liberal Progressive Party, later known as the Progressive Federal Party, which favored a more inclusive, nonracial franchise that would lead to black majority rule. Some of the most relentless enforcers of apartheid eventually developed a grudging respect for her, even a hint of affection. James T. Kruger, the justice minister under Mr. Vorster during the Soweto riots, was one of the “bullies” Mrs. Suzman frequently denounced.
Years later, out of office, Mr. Kruger learned that Mrs. Suzman was planning a tourist visit to the Soviet Union with her husband. A keen amateur philatelist, he approached her in the parliamentary lobby and gave her a sheaf of self-addressed postcards and letters, each bearing new South African stamps, asking her to mail them back to him from Moscow.
When she said that the Soviet postal authorities would not accept South African stamps, she recalled, Mr. Kruger was puzzled. For Mrs. Suzman, the incident demonstrated the occluded world inhabited by many apartheid leaders, who often acted, she said, as if they belonged to the 17th, not the 20th century. “Poor old Jimmy Kruger,” she said. “Like most of them, he knew very little of the world beyond South Africa.”