Remembering Helen Suzman:A Life of Struggle Against Apartheid in South Africa.

Helen Suzman and Nelson MandelaThe announcement of Helen Suzman’s death on January 1, 2009 in Johannesburg South Africa motivated a group of SUNY Cortland faculty to create a website to commemorate the life and work of Helen Suzman that would enable College students and Cortland high school students to know more of the anti-apartheid campaigner in South Africa. Each of the contributing faculty members has their own story as to why they wanted to contribute to this website:

Heather Bridge (Assistant Professor, Childhood/Early Childhood Department) reflects how her father described South Africa as a most beautiful country – even during World War II. Heather Bridge’s awareness of South Africa led to an interest in Helen Suzman, who was one of the great global political figures of her childhood. During the 1960’s, Helen Suzman’s controversial work against the Anti-Apartheid regime in South Africa was regularly reported on the BBC television news. Such political giants are now coming to the end of their lives, but as a teacher, Heather Bridge believes that it is her responsibility to share what she knows of Helen Suzman and her struggle to change and improve the lives of black South Africans. Change never comes easily but of particular interest to Heather Bridge, is how Helen Suzman used her knowledge of economics to fight for political change. It was obvious to Helen Suzman that Apatheid could not make South Africa economically strong, and as a result, the lives of most South Africans who were black would be impoverished. What is remarkable about Helen Suzman is her persistence. Even after Apartheid she continued to work for policies to improve provision to fight AIDS and to address violence in neighboring Zimbabwe.
Growing up in England far from London, Stephen Burwood (Director of the Clark Center for International Education) saw Helen Suzman on TV and in the newspapers.  She was one of the reasons why, as a young teenager, he joined the British organization the Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM).  Like many others, he was increasingly drawn to the more radical black power/student power movements inside and outside South Africa but never forgot the incredible courage of Helen Suzman in facing down, day after day, the callous bigots who controlled so many lives and made individual human beings far less than they could be, merely because of the pigment of their skin. He went on to lead the re-naming of the student meeting room at Warwick University after Nelson Mandela and, as an undergraduate, organized a national British conference on Racism and Fascism.  He was fortunate enough to visit South Africa in 2005 and in doing so, fulfilled a long-cherished wish to see a multi-racial, democratic South Africa. Helen Suzman’s death early this year brought back home to him how much we owe to the many individuals who liberated South Africa but reclaimed her from the obscurity into which she sank after her retirement and the fall of apartheid itself. We need to remember that in the darkest days, when apartheid seemed invincible, Helen Suzman’s voice was often all we heard, a beacon of hope and good sense in a world gone mad.

Sheila Cohen (Associate Professor and Chair of the Literacy Department) has a very strong interest in addressing issues of social justice and the rights of indigenous and marginalized people. Cohen could not recall learning much about Suzman even as a young adult in spite of all she read about apartheid and her fascination with South African music, especially Pata Pata as sung by Miriam Makeba.   She found the  obituaries and biographies captivating and could not stop reading about Suzman for several days.  As a literacy professor, Cohen would love to see a children’s book about the life of Suzman.  Picture books or graphic novels are appealing formats for children and adults to learn about remarkable people.  She may even write one herself.  She believes that young people should read or hear about this “cricket in a thorn tree”, in language they can understand . They can then learn early in their lives, about a remarkable woman who confronted injustice with persistence and courage.

As a professor of social studies pedagogy, Karen Hempson (Childhood/Early Childhood Department) states that she constantly seeks to teach history not only through historic events and concepts, but also through lessons learned by people doing extraordinary feats.  These feats are, oftentimes, the result of an injustice either experienced by the person directly - or - witnessed by the person.  Helen Suzman is such a person who, given her privileged background, could have lived her life comfortably and unaffected by South Africa’s Apartheid policy. Instead she chose to fight the injustice that plagued the South African people, and justified her fight through political, moral, and economic reasons.  The Helen Suzman Foundation is her legacy. The Foundation has the “aim of strengthening South Africa's relatively new democracy by prompting the principles of liberty, equality of opportunity, individual human rights and respect for the needs of the poor, cultural minorities and the powerless. These principles apply not only in the political sphere, but also in the spheres of development and poverty reduction.”  The Helen Suzman Foundation seeks to complete the work that its founder has started.  It is imperative that educators promote the life of Helen Suzman in their curriculum to teach the importance of promoting these democratic principles.

Henry Steck (Distinguished Service Professor in Political Science) adds that although he is not an expert on South Africa, reading about Helen Suzman in newspaper articles when he was much younger was galvanizing.  Here was a white, a woman and a Jewish white woman at that, using the instruments of democracy, to fight against Apartheid, and very much in the face, as we say, of the horrendous apartheid regime.  In the aftermath of the Holocaust and given all that Jews had suffered through the ages, the notion that Helen Suzman, about whom I knew little more than her name, could draw on that experience of persecution to fight for others was moving.  Helen Suzman is an example of the story of liberation that we revisit each Passover. In my lifetime, we have seen many horrors – the worst of the worst – but we have also seen figures who are the best of the best and teach us many lessons.  So, that is what Helen Suzman was for me.