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May 26, 1989 - Image 36

Resource type:
Text
Publication:
The Detroit Jewish News, 1989-05-26

Disclaimer: Computer generated plain text may have errors. Read more about this.

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H

elen Suzman is the
very model of a pam-
pered Johannesburg
matron. Slim and chic, her
carefully coiffed hair and
manicured nails reflect the
genteel elegance and uncom-
promisingly affluence of the
heavily Jewish suburb of
Houghton in which she lives.
Helen Suzman is also living
proof that appearances can be
deceptive.
Beneath the carefully
cultivated exterior lies a
penetrating inquisitiveness
and a fierce determination
that have combined to moni-
tor and expose a range of evil-
doing, from the petty humilia-
tions to the grosser racial ex-
cesses of South Africa's apar-
theid regime.
For the past 36 years, the
wealthy folk of Houghton
have consistently chosen
Helen Suzman to be their
representative in the South
African parliament, pro-
viding her with a grandstand
seat in an arena where one of
the great contemporary
tragedies has been played
out.
During that time, the
Member for Houghton has
cannily translated privilege
into prominence and pro-
minence into power, estab-
lishing an international plat-
form from which to criticize
and torment her racially
obsessed peers, challenging
them to live up to even the
minimal standards of demo-
cracy which they themselves
espouse.
In the process, she has
become a legend, an interna-
tional symbol of hope in a
hopeless land, the voice of the
dispossessed, a portrait in
courage.
Last week, however, the
longest-serving and best-
known member of the South
African parliament — argu-
ably one of the best-known
Jews in public life anywhere
— announced her retirement.
It was an occasion that
marked the end of an era, not
only for this highly political
animal, but also for South
African politics and, not least,
for the diminishing breed of
old-style liberals who left
their mark on the 1950s and
1960s.
Helen Suzman, now 71, de-
scribes herself as " straight,
old-fashioned liberal" and
reckons that if her Lithua-
nian father had washed up in

New York instead of Johan-
nesburg, she would probably
have been a teacher on the
East Side, a civil rights
lawyer, "a mini Bella Abzug."
In postwar South Africa,
however, there was one clear
cause, and Helen Suzman —
along with many fellow mid-
dle-class- Jewish intellectuals
whose parents had arrived il-
literate and penniless from
Eastern Europe — threw
herself enthusiastically into
battle.
Unlike the significant band
of dissenting Jews, who were
drawn to the Communist Par-

Helen Suzman:
Liberal legend.

ty and other organizations
dedicated to violent revolu-
tion, she chose to take the
constitutional route.
The unusually attractive,
unusually bright, convent-
educated economics graduate
who had married an eminent
Johannesburg physician,
Mosie Suzman, was just 35
when she first won a seat in
parliament in 1953. It was a
time when Winston Churchill
was Prime Minister of Britain
and the Eisenhower ad-
ministration was in its
infancy.
Six years later, Helen Suz-
man joined a rebellion in the
United Party — then the of-
ficial opposition — and be-
came cofounder of the non-
racial Progressive Party,
which was based on a quali-
fied franchise and the rule of
law. In the elections that
followed, the rebels were
routed and Helen Suzman
emerged as the new party's
only • elected representative.
For the next 13 years, her
voice was the sole, unrelen-
ting, parliamentary protest
against the disenfranchise-
ment of South Africa's black,
Asian and mixed-race majori-
ty and the abuses heaped
upon them.

Only her fellow legislators
refused to acknowledge that
she spoke for those who had
no voice; to the rest of the
world, her lonely vigil in
behalf of 20 million black
fellow-countrymen meant
that she represented more
South Africans than the rest
of parliament put together.
She became famous for her
head-to-head confrontations
with the hard men of A-
frikaner politics, as well as for
her pointed, persistent ques-
tioning of cabinet ministers
which frequently led to em-
barrassing disclosures about
the practices of apartheid.
Today, she does not hide her
satisfaction at the hackles
she has raised. On one
celebrated occasion, she
recalls, a furious govermment
minister lashed out at her in
parliament, claiming that her
questions were embarrassing
, South Africa in the eyes of the

-4

4

-4

I

A
11 0

"It is not my questions that
are embarrassing South
Africa," she replied tartly. "It
is your answers."
In the early years of her
career, Helen Suzman says
she encountered "a good deal
of anti-Semitism" from her
political opponents in the Na-
tional Party, which had open-
ly supported the Nazis during
World War II.
"They would shout at me,
`Go back to Moscow.' Later,

they shouted
_
_ 'Go back to
Israel.' But after the Six Day
War," she says, "Israel
became too good for me and I
was sent back to Moscow
again!'
Of greater concern were the
stream of abusive letters and
telephone calls — "all anti-
-4
Semitic" — which became a
part of her life and her career.
Not all, however, were
threatening. She clearly --4
relishes one exchange of let-
ters with the head of a super-
patriotic and powerful organi-
zation for Afrikaner women. d ■ 4
The writer reminded the
Jewish parliamentarian that
the Afrikaners had once
trekked through the veld, Bi-
ble in hand, to build a new
4
promised land. "What," she
demanded, "did your an-
cesters do?"
"My ancestors," replied
Helen Suzman with a char-
acteristic flourish, "were busy
.1
writing the Bible!'
Yet another letter appealed
to her ironic sense of humor:
an Afrikaner woman whose
son had shot and killed a
black promised to vote for her
because she had heard that

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