South African dissident honored in photo exhibit

Courtesy Photo

South Africa’s infamous apartheid regime is often considered one of the worst human-rights injustices of the 20th century. During the segregation policy’s early days, it had few opponents in government, but there was a lone female who spoke against it, making her mark on the South African history books.

That woman was Helen Suzman, and she is honored in “Helen Suzman: Fighter for Human Rights,” a pictorial history exhibit at the Katz Snyder Gallery at the Jewish Community Center.

Apartheid — which denied South African-born black and “colored” people citizenship and forced racial segregation — began in 1948 and wasn’t abolished until 1994, when Nelson Mandela was sworn in as president.

From 1961 to 1974, Suzman was the sole parliamentary representative of the Progressive Party, which was anti-apartheid and promoted integration. Suzman, a descendent of Lithuanian Jews who died at the age of 91 in 2009, held her place in parliament for 37 years, repeatedly sticking her neck out for most of them.

“I would be in a rage all the time if I were black,” Suzman is quoted in the exhibit. “I am provocative, I admit this … I can be thoroughly nasty when I get going, and I don’t pull my punches.”

The show incorporates copious amounts of history, biographical information and photographs, including images of Suzman with Nelson Mandela, John F. Kennedy and Hillary Clinton. Letters of gratitude are showered on her from Desmond Tutu, Margaret Thatcher, George H.W. Bush and more.

Suzman was tough, frequently telling the opposition in parliament exactly what she thought of them. She once said to P.W. Botha, the South African prime minister and apartheid enforcer: “Don’t like you — I can’t stand you.”

Suzman received two degrees in economics and entered parliament in 1953. Although the parties she represented split and reformed under different titles, for the most part she stayed the same course, working toward “justice, equal opportunities, and human rights.”

She voted against segregation at the academic education level in 1959, opposed the infamous Pass Laws in 1968 (segregation laws which were passed and enforced until 1986) and in 1971 she was the only member of parliament to vote against the Drug Abuse Act that did not distinguish between marijuana and “hard drugs,” thus labeling her “permissive” by her opponents. She kept her telephone number public, and was often subject to anti-Semitic abuse.

Suzman used her government status to visit black Bantustans, shanty-towns, townships and countless prisons, including Robben Island-where she first met Nelson Mandela in 1967. She quoted Mandela in parliament as early as 1963, a year after he was first imprisoned.

This show is an exemplary and informative tribute to a human rights trailblazer.


Helen Suzman: Fighter for Human Rights

Where: Jewish Community Center, 3200 California St., S.F.
When: 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Mondays-Thursdays; 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays; closes Aug. 31
Admission: Free
Contact: (415) 292-1200,

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