Thursday, January 1, 2009

Helen Suzman (1917-2009)

Helen Suzman, an outspoken critic of apartheid while serving in South Africa’s parliament, died today at her home in Johannesburg. She was 91 years old.

The International Herald Tribune obituary is here.

For some of her 36 years in office, Ms. Suzman was South Africa’s only female legislator. And Nelson Mandela has written that Suzman was the only woman – as well as the only member of parliament – to visit him and other political prisoners on Robben Island.

Ms. Suzman in later years founded the Helen Suzman Foundation, a think tank devoted to liberal democratic ideals.

In 2004, she expressed her disenchantment with the African National Congress after South Africa’s first decade under majority rule. She called President Thabo Mbeki “anti-white.”

“I had hoped for something much better,” she told a British newspaper. “The poor in this country have not benefited at all from the ANC.

“This government spends like a drunken sailor. Instead of investing in projects to give people jobs, they spend millions buying weapons and private jets, and sending gifts to Haiti.”

Below is an excerpt of a 1995 interview with Helen Suzman published in the book “Cutting Through the Mountain,” which focuses on liberal Jewish activists in South Africa.

Ms. Suzman, the daughter of Lithuanian immigrants, wasn’t religious, but she strongly identified with her Jewish ethnicity, and she raised money for Israel.
GEOFF SIFRIN: How did you relate to the [economic and military] connections between Israel and the apartheid government over the years? It must have been at times a source of considerable embarrassment to you.

HELEN SUZMAN: Well, I took a more pragmatic view about this because, you know, people have to survive.

I was once asked by Bishop Tutu, “How could the Jews, Israel, with its history of Jewish persecution, have any dealings with a country like South Africa which is full of race discrimination?” And my answer was, “It was purely a question of survival!”

SIFRIN: And does that justify it for you?

SUZMAN: It didn’t justify it. It explained it to me. I mean, I can understand a lot of things without condoning them.

SIFRIN: Did that satisfy Bishop Tutu?

SUZMAN: No, I’m sure it didn’t. When he used to compare the treatment of blacks by the government here with the Holocaust, that used to irritate me very much indeed. ...

SIFRIN: Do you think it is possible, or useful, to compare such things as apartheid and the Holocaust?

SUZMAN: I don’t think it is possible, or useful. I think it is harmful. Because although there is no doubt that blacks were persecuted and oppressed and denied equal opportunities, there was never an actual attempt at genocide. And that is the real big difference.

It is true that a lot of babies die of malnutrition and a lot of people who were forcibly removed were starving in the rural areas... but they are not comparable situations, because the intention was not to wipe out the blacks.

The system of apartheid was a totally heartless system which didn’t care what the results were, but nevertheless it wasn’t the practical implementation of genocide.... I did say that Tutu, because he once compared apartheid to the Holocaust in front of a delegation from the American Jewish Congress. They were furious with him.

SIFRIN: ... Although a full comparison between apartheid and the Holocaust might not be valid, nevertheless many of the apartheid laws were virtual carbon copies of Nazi laws – for example, job reservation, the Immorality Act, Influx Control and so on.

SUZMAN: Absolutely. I am only talking about the actual Holocaust, the program of extermination of the Jews. That is not comparable. But the rest is comparable to some extent.

But apartheid even differs from slavery in the United States. Blacks were never slaves here, which is an important thing to remember. I often find that the hostility between black and white in America is almost more visible than what you see in this country.

I have long wondered why this was so, and I have come to the conclusion, not tested by any authority or anthropological expert, that it is because blacks in America will never ever forgive the status of slavery. Slavery is particularly humiliating, and the consequences were the break-up of African black families. They were left with no language, no roots. Dispersal. Complete cut-off.

Whereas blacks in this country, although they were badly treated, nevertheless maintained the tribal entity, the family entity, despite the migrant labor system. And they were never slaves. ...

SIFRIN: What do you think explains the incredible ability to forgive that seems to exist amongst blacks in this country?

SUZMAN: I think they are able to do this because they don’t carry that awful badge of slavery, where you are not a human being. You were never a slave. You were never sold and bought. Your language stayed, your ethnic origins were easily apparent. It was quite different.


Geneva Girl said...

Thank you for that. I did not know of her before, but I'm sad to learn that such a thoughtful woman has left the earth.

Natty Boh said...

Helen Suzman took particular exception (and rightly so) to Bishop Tutu comparing the black situation in RSA to the holocaust. Many Jews I know are equally curious how the term 'diaspora' has been incorporated into the black lexicon of terms. It's a fabulous word. But, it in no way defines how blacks arrived on this continent nor does it describe or define what has occurred here for the past couple centuries.

Michael Fisher said...

Helen Suzman was an ass. "It's a matter of survival". Yeah, right. Israels' cooperation with racist South Africa, it's delivery of weapons designed to suppress the African local population in South Africa, and its assistance to the racist South Africans in developing nuclear weaponry was a matter of survival? Like the United States wasn't protecting Israel throughout?

Undercover Black Man said...

^ Yeah, Michael... she defends Israel the way you defend Mugabe. Ethnocentricly.

Michael Fisher said...


"Yeah, Michael... she defends Israel the way you defend Mugabe. Ethnocentricly."

You ought to stop lying, David. We went through that a number of times. In writing to boot. You well know that I never have defended Mugabe and that I opposed Mugabe since before 1979. You also know very well that I have always maintained that the situation in Zimbabwe is a fall out among thieves.
o now you're relying on outright lies to make your argument? Man, you're sinking into a vat of sewage.

Undercover Black Man said...

You well know that I never have defended Mugabe...

Oops. My wrong.

Does that mean you wish that Mugabe had left office after losing the last election?

Michael Fisher said...

That means that I wished the Zimbabwean people would have thrown the whole cabal including Mugabe-ZANU and the various MDCs out and start all over again on the bsis of genuine redistribution of the land to the Africans.

Undercover Black Man said...

^ Short of that, though... Mugabe remaining in power was better for Zimbabweans than the MDC taking over, right?

Michael Fisher said...


"Short of that, though... Mugabe remaining in power was better for Zimbabweans than the MDC taking over, right?"


There is no "short of that". Choosing between the factions is like choosing to shoot yourself in the head either via the left or the right temple.