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Helen Suzman: Anti-Apartheid Activist

Suzman1 Nelson Mandela and Helen Suzman’s first meeting after Mandela’s release from prison in 1990

,After Nelson Mandela became President of South Africa, the story of life under apartheid for Blacks needed to be told. In 2001 an apartheid museum was duly opened in Johannesburg. It is considered the preeminent museum of apartheid.

Surprisingly, one wall of the museum is devoted to a white Jewish anti-apartheid activist and politician by the name of Helen Suzman. On the wall is a story, part of which needs to be retold. At the time she was the sole representative of the Progressive Party in the South African Parliament when the following altercation took place.

One of the ruling Nationalist Party members of Parliament delivered a stirring speech of how his ancestors had arrived in South Africa in the early 18th century. He described how his ancestors were Bible-fearing people who trekked into the unknown and conquered the land, and how they had discovered diamonds in Kimberly and gold in Johannesburg. He described in great detail how they had built the country with their bare hands and their faith in God, and how they had constantly found strength in their reading of the Bible. He then turned to Helen Suzman and enquired: "And what were your ancestors doing?" Every member of Parliament turned to look at Helen Suzman.

Helen Suzman, not to be outdone, stood up and replied: "My ancestors were writing the Bible." Stunned silence followed as the wisdom of her words were immediately apparent.

Helen Suzman's place in South African history will be remembered forever. The other members of Parliament have already been forgotten.

Frances Jowell, the daughter of Helen Suzman wrote:

On pp.116-117 of her memoir, In No Uncertain Terms, Helen Suzman refers to a correspondence with Mrs Marie van Zyl, president of the Kappie Kommando (a right wing women's group who dressed in Great Trek fashion - with deep rimmed bonnets etc). On being asked, in an interview published in a Sunday newspaper, for her opinion about them, Helen had commented, rather off-handedly, that they "belong to the days of witch burning". This (understandably!) annoyed Mrs van Zyl who wrote to her (in Afrikaans) that the Kappie Kommando women were proud of their old-fashioned ideas and that she wanted to remind Helen that her ancestors had taken the Bible across the mountains to the savages on the other side – "And what were your ancestors doing at that time, Mrs Suzman?". Helen replied in Afrikaans: "My voorgangers was besig om die Bybel te skryf. Die Uwe, Helen Suzman" (My ancestors were busy writing the Bible, Yours faithfully…)

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Monday, 25 January 2021

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