/ 2 January 2009

Flags to fly at half-mast in honour of Suzman

Helen Suzman was for many years a lone defender of liberal values in the South African Parliament, the FW de Klerk Foundation said on Thursday.

”She fearlessly spoke out, and actively worked for the freedoms and justice in which she so passionately believed. She lived to see the realisation of many of her ideals in the adoption of our interim constitution in 1993 and our present Constitution in 1996,” said FW de Klerk in a statement.

De Klerk said for many years he and Suzman were political opponents, but always respected one another.

”We differed, however, on the need to protect community and minority rights. Helen Suzman thought that such rights could be best protected by guaranteeing individual rights, while I believed that they needed specific protection.”

He said in recent years, through the foundations that bear their names, they have been united in their common endeavours to defend the rights and institutions that were protected by the Constitution.

”Helen Suzman made an enormous contribution to the establishment of our constitutional democracy and to the promotion of non-racial justice in South Africa.”

Motlanthe pays tribute
Suzman earned her place in the country’s political history through her persistent and courageous opposition to the inhumane system of apartheid, President Kgalema Motlanthe said on Thursday.

”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.”

He said South Africans of all persuasions should honour Suzman and show appreciation of her contribution to the building of a democratic society.

”On Sunday, as all of us will be saying our last goodbye to Helen Suzman, the national flag at all flag posts throughout the country shall be flown at half-mast in celebration of her life.”

”She really was indomitable,” said Archbishop Desmond Tutu on Thursday.

”She used to visit Robben Island at the time when Nelson Mandela and others were held there.” He said that ”just by being stroppy” she was able to effect change. He added: ”We owe her an enormous, enormous debt … She was a powerhouse against apartheid.”

The chief executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, Achmat Dangor, described her as ”a great patriot and a fearless fighter against apartheid”.

Her daughter, Frances Jowell, said there would be a private funeral this weekend and a public memorial service to be held in February.

Lone voice
First elected to the all-white South African Parliament in 1953, Suzman was often a lone voice speaking out against the inequities and atrocities of the National party government. She served as an MP until her retirement in 1989 and was by Mandela’s side when he signed the country’s new Constitution in 1996 as its first black president.

Mandela, to whom she sent classical music records in prison, awarded her the Order of Merit (gold) in recognition of her work in 1997. ”It is a courage born of the yearning for freedom”, he said of her at the time, ”of hatred of oppression, injustice and inequity whether the victim be oneself or another; a fortitude that draws its strength from the conviction that no person can be free while others are unfree”.

In the foreword to her autobiography, Mandela wrote: ”Without apologising for her using the South African parliamentary process, Helen’s participation in opposing the complete absence of democracy in South Africa under the National party rule must be applauded.”

Born Helen Gavronsky in the mining town of Germiston, in the Transvaal, to Jewish immigrants from Eastern Europe, she was a lecturer at Witwatersrand University before she entered politics as an opposition MP, initially for the United party. She later helped to form the liberal Progressive party, for whom she was the sole MP for more than a decade.

She was often mocked and heckled in parliament by the supporters of apartheid who told her: ”Go back to Moscow” or ”Go back to Israel”.

President PW Botha accused her of trying to bring the country to its knees and of helping the enemies of South Africa. She responded: ”I am not frightened of you. I never have been and I never will be. I think nothing of you.”

She said of Botha: ”If he was female he would arrive in parliament on a broomstick.”

Over the years, she received 27 honorary doctorates from universities around the world. She was made Dame of the British Empire in 1989.

At her 90th birthday, she expressed her disappointment at what she saw as a lack of progress in South Africa in addressing crime, unemployment and poverty.

She was also highly critical of Robert Mugabe, the president of Zimbabwe, who declared her to be an ”enemy of the state” for her criticism. – guardian.co.uk