As the deteriorating health of Nelson Mandela, the first president of post-apartheid South Africa, dominated citizens’ thoughts and newspaper headlines in recent months, the legacy of another opponent of the country’s former policy of racial discrimination became the subject of debate.
That opponent was the late Helen Suzman, a Jewish, longtime member of the South African parliament who for many years served as the sole white, legislative voice against apartheid.
In a debate earlier this year in the Western Cape Legislature – where Cape Town is located – Max Ozinsky, a legislator who is a member of Mandela’s ruling African National Congress (ANC) party said Suzman “wanted to kill us,” referring to the apartheid-era ANC. Refusing to apologize for the remarks that other politicians considered incendiary, Ozinsky was ordered by the legislature’s deputy speaker to leave the building, and his remarks became a matter of national controversy.
Ozinsky’s criticism of Suzman, who had frequently and forcibly spoken out against apartheid but did not back an international boycott of South Africa – which meant that the army could continue to receive arms with which it oppressed the majority black population and fought against armed ANC members – followed a “Know Your DA” public relations campaign that featured a decades-old photograph of Mandela hugging Suzman.
DA is the Democratic Alliance party, the ANC’s major opposition; Suzman had belonged to the DA’s predecessor parties.
During Mandela’s 27 years in the prison of Robben Island where prominent black opponents of apartheid were interned, Suzman had been the only white member of parliament to visit Mandela, who had become the leader and symbol of the country’s liberation movement.
Suzman, who was known to be Jewish but was not an active member of the community, died in 2009.
In recent years, her participation in the country’s political system, and her refusal to support an economic and military boycott, has drawn criticism of some ANC members.
Ozinsky’s speech drew the most attention.
“There is no denying that Suzman played a particular role in opposing apartheid as a member of parliament,” said Moloto Mothapo, senior manager for media and communication at the ANC parliamentary caucus, who added that she had “served in a discredited political system [that] legitimized an unjust order,” and “made her role morally indefensible.”
“Suzman did not only dedicate her energy protecting the economic interests of the apartheid South Africa,” Mothapo said in a statement, but “by rejecting international calls for disinvestment [she] also used her influence to fight against any international financial donations directed at the liberation movements to help sustain their anti-apartheid programmes.”
The controversy over Suzman’s legacy, and over Ozinsky’s remarks “fit into an attempt by the ANC to gain control of the Western Cape, which is currently under the DA,” says Geoff Sifrin, editor of South Africa’s Jewish Report newspaper.
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“They are doing this by trying to discredit the DA and its historical predecessors and personalities like Helen Suzman,” Sifrin says in an email interview.
“The mainstream Jewish community’s take on the Suzman-Ozinsky thing would be basically to ignore it,” he says. “It wouldn’t be seen as a major incident in itself, because Suzman’s Jewishness was not mentioned” in the ANC criticism of her record. “Obviously her Jewishness is a sub-text which most people will understand, since most people know that Suzman was Jewish.”
In the years following the end of apartheid, the contributions of Suzman and other white opponents of the racist system were often downplayed, with an emphasis on the blacks who had fought against apartheid.
“She said to me several times,” Sifrin says, “that she had been ‘airbrushed out of SA history.’”