Religious leaders salute the courage of Helen Suzman

By Ecumenical News International
January 12, 2009

Helen Suzman, for many years a lone white liberal crusader against apartheid in South Africa's parliament, and who died on New Year's Day aged 91, has been praised by religious leaders as her life was celebrated when she was buried on last week - writes Munyaradzi Makoni.

"She was a true heroine who contributed to our country's peaceful transition when many predicted a racial bloodbath. South Africa is poorer without her. We owe her an immense debt. The least a grateful nation should do to show its appreciation of her contribution is to afford her an official funeral," Nobel Peace Prize laureate Desmond Tutu, the former Anglican archbishop of Cape Town, said on her death.

Suzman's family, however, organized a private funeral on 4 January and a public memorial service will be held in February.

Helen Suzman was born in the mining town of Germiston near Johannesburg on 17 November 1917. She was the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania and attended high school at the Parktown Convent in Johannesburg.

While serving in South Africa's parliament from 1953 to 1989, Suzman denounced racial segregation, ill-treatment of political prisoners and the erosion of the rule of law. For 13 years, from 1961 to 1974, she was the Progressive Party's sole representative and a lone liberal voice in the whites-only parliament.

Suzman's funeral was conducted by South Africa's chief rabbi, Warren Goldstein, who said, "Helen Suzman often used to say 'I don't like bullies'. She also used to say 'All I want is simple justice' … She was driven by a passion to right the injustices and to correct the wrongs of the world … When Helen saw a broken world, she came forward to fix it."

Russel Botman, a theologian and adviser to the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, who is also the rector of Stellenbosch University, said, "Helen Suzman's legacy as a champion for human rights and her sustained and fearless efforts in support of a democratic dispensation will remain an inspiration to future generations."

South African President Kgalema Motlanthe, who ordered that flags be flown at half mast on 4 January, said, "At a time when the apartheid government sought a blackout on critical and independent views about the inhumanities inflicted on millions of South Africans it was Helen Suzman who stood out as one of the few remaining voices of reason in the darkest days of our country's history."

Helen Zille, the leader of South Africa's main opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, said, "Suzman was my mentor, she was opposed to the abuse of power by the old apartheid government, she was also opposed to the current abuse of power by the current ANC [African National Congress] government."

The small opposition African Christian Democratic Party described Suzman as a tireless fighter for her cause and said she showed that one person could make a difference.

[With acknowledgements to ENI. Ecumenical News International is jointly sponsored by the World Council of Churches, the Lutheran World Federation, the World Alliance of Reformed Churches, and the Conference of European Churches.]

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