Thursday, January 01, 2009

A Jewish Hero Dies

Helen Suzman (right above) died today at the age of 91.

For many years Suzman was the sole member of the South African (all white) Parliament who actively opposed apartheid.

Suzman eventually became her country’s longest-serving legislator, pressing for changes from the benches of the whites-only Parliament for 36 years before she retired from the assembly in 1989. For 13 of those years, she was the sole parliamentary representative of the Progressive Party, the only party to reject racial discrimination.

In the country’s first fully democratic elections in 1994, she acted as an election commissioner. The ballot spelled the formal demise of apartheid and brought Mr. Mandela to power as the country’s first black president.

The ruling African National Congress paid tribute to Mrs. Suzman saying she “became a thorn in the flesh of apartheid by openly criticizing segregation of Blacks by a Whites-only apartheid system.”

As a young person in the 60s and 70s I was always proud that Suzman was Jewish as where a large percentage of the voters in her Johannesburg district. Though not a radical by Canadian standards - she opposed the ANC's guerrilla campaign (its "armed struggle"), and even opposed the 1980's economic boycott of South Africa - she was a radical within the context of white South African society, and she helped keep the idea of black rights alive and open for discussion within that society: something that was also necessary for the eventual undermining of apartheid.

She was a mensch and unafraid and tenacious in standing up for justice.

May her memory be a blessing.

For more see her obituary in the New York Times


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