My Faith Heroine: Helen Suzman by Ruth Messinger
One of the things I love most about Jewish tradition is the imperative to ask tough questions. Jews are encouraged not to accept the world as is, but to wrestle with it; to consider a multitude of narratives and truths, and to challenge the status quo. When I think of people who have immersed themselves in this kind of rigorous thinking, I often think of Helen Suzman—an activist and parliamentarian who fought a long and lonely battle against apartheid leaders in her own country of South Africa. Helen was not a religious Jew, but her values, actions, and life-long struggle for justice expressed a deeply Jewish sensibility.
I met Helen in 2009, shortly before her death at the age of 93. I had always known about her because she was a Jewish woman, an elected official, and because she challenged her country’s government to end racism and injustice. When we met, she shared detailed memories of her past and offered a sharp analysis of South African politics, racial injustice and the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Between 1961 and 1974, Helen was the only person elected to public office who was willing to speak out against the oppression of black South Africans. She posed tough questions to government ministers and held them accountable for answers. I learned from her obituary that she asked the hardest questions in Parliament’s public session. Why? Because those exchanges were covered by the press, while all other information about the life and treatment of the black majority was censored.
Helen went to Robben Island on a regular basis to visit Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners. She reported on the gross indignities they faced and she pushed for prison reforms to alleviate suffering.
Without question, Helen’s actions, public comments, and commitment to speak truth to power helped bring about an end to apartheid. At the same time, Helen was a thoughtful and outspoken opponent of Americans’ efforts to push the U.S. to divest from South Africa. This made it hard to love her even when I admired her.
It saddens me that so few people know of Helen Suzman. As I continue to wrestle with what it means to be a Jew and what it means to make hard, strategic choices in pursuing global justice, I look to Helen for inspiration. And I remind myself of how important it is to tell her story.