JCC exhibit profiles courageous fighter of apartheid, injustice

When it comes to fighting for a cause that you know to be right, it is an admirable thing to stand with others who believe as you do.

It requires another level of courage altogether to stand alone.

Helen Suzman, a white, Jewish South African who actively opposed the system of apartheid throughout her adult life and lived to see it abolished, is a stellar example of such a person.

Helen Suzman with former South African President Nelson Mandela photo/courtesy of helen suzman foundation

Entering South African politics in 1953 through the United Party, which was then the official opposition to the ruling National Party, she later formed the splinter Progressive Party to effect a more committed struggle against the regime. From 1961 to 1974 she was the only progressive member of Parliament and the only MP to unequivocally oppose apartheid. For six of those years she also was the only woman in a South African Parliament composed primarily of Calvinist Afrikaner men. Suzman served 36 years in Parliament, until 1989, using her status to fearlessly fight for civil and human rights. She died in 2009 at the age of 91.

That same year, the Isaac and Jessie Kaplan Centre for Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Capetown developed a 29-panel multimedia exhibit documenting Suzman’s strengths, struggle, character and accomplishments. Now on display at the Jewish Community Center of San Francisco, the exhibit features news photos, letters, newspaper clippings and other artifacts that document the South African struggle for democracy and social justice, and Suzman’s role.

A newspaper headline stating, “HELEN SUZMAN VOTES AGAINST WHOLE HOUSE” testifies to her long-term political solitude within the established political system. A black and white photograph of President Nelson Mandela tenderly embracing the elderly Suzman reveals the rewards of standing in solidarity with those who were, for decades upon decades, the outsiders of that system.

Lenore Naxon, director of the JCCSF’s Katz-Snyder Gallery where the exhibit is on view, describes Suzman as “a righteous person: tough, tenacious, tireless, indefatigable, and an advocate for human rights, human dignity and justice.” The exhibit opening featured a talk by Suzman’s nephew, the S.F.-based landscape designer Stephen Suzman.

Helen Suzman photo/courtesy of helen suzman foundation

Born and raised in Johannesburg, Stephen Suzman was deeply influenced by his aunt and by the time and place in which he came to adulthood. “There are lessons that can be learned from her unwavering belief in democratic institutions, individual liberty, freedom of expression, freedom of the press, freedom of association and an independent judiciary,” he said.

His aunt, who with her husband Dr. Moses Suzman had two daughters, sacrificed a great deal of family time in order to fight for social change, and she was not immune to discouragement and despair, he said.

“She always checked and double checked her facts, because she couldn’t afford to be wrong or sloppy. She had to become an expert on all government portfolios, would work till well after midnight in order not to miss an opportunity to speak. … She represented not only her own constituency but all of the liberal whites and all of the millions and millions of vote-less South Africans.

“She confronted and questioned all these bullying ministers and attacked their callousness and ineptitude; she was subject to many ‘go back to Moscow’ and ‘Go to Israel’ comments; she had many anti-Semitic death threats against her, and abusive phone calls; there were swastikas on her posters; she received mail, which interestingly went to the right address, when they were addressed only to ‘Helen Suzman, The Yiddisher Know-it-All from Houghton’. Her phones were tapped,” he attested.

Helen Suzman also fought an anti-gay bill, he said, opposed th mandatory sentencing and criminalization of marijuana use, stood up for abortion rights and the rights of conscientious objectors, “opposed the use of torture and violence and exposed many of the regime’s worst transgressions,” he said.

“In many ways she was ahead of her time. And in the end she could and did say ‘I told you so’ to many National Party MPs, who finally admitted that she’d been right all along.

“What we all need to remember, above all,” he added, “is the fact that no generation can ever take the democratic framework for granted. We always have to be vigilant and each generation has to earn freedom in its own way.”

“Helen Suzman: Fighter for Human Rights”
is on exhibit through August at the JCC of S.F., 3200 California St., S.F. Free.

To hear a podcast of the lecture by Stephen Suzman, go to www.tinyurl.com/sound-cloud-suzman

Laura Pall
Laura Paull

Laura Paull is J.'s Culture Editor, and was a longtime J. freelance writer before that.