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The Loss of a Hero: Apartheid Critic Helen Suzman Dies at 91

Posted on Monday, January 5th, 2009 at 5:37 pm by Madeleine Kunin

Who were my role models in public life? Long before I knew I would run for office some day, I admired a woman from South Africa, Helen Suzman, whose lone voice spoke out against apartheid in the all white Parliament. She died a few days ago at the age of 91.

Why was I drawn to her? We shared certain similarities; she was Jewish, she had young children, she was married to a doctor, as I was at the time. But she was a role model for me not so much because I was like her, but because I wanted to become more like her; to understand the source of her extraordinary courage.

She survived death threats, was not intimidated by what she called apartheid's leading bullies, who called her a "dangerous subversive" and a "sickly humanist."

"I am not frightened of you—I never have been, and I never will be," she told Prime Minister Botha in a Parliamentary exchange. (NYTimes, Jan. 2, 2009)

She suffered sharp criticism when she differed with those who supported economic sanctions to oppose apartheid. Her reason for this stance was that sanctions would punish blacks more than whites.

I had the opportunity to meet my hero in Washington some 12 years ago at the British ambassador's home when he was hosting a dinner for Nelson Mandela. It was a heady evening—dining with two of the most courageous people in the world. Mandela expressed obvious affection for this small, confident woman. What I had not known, until I read her obituary, was that she visited him regularly on Robben Island where he was imprisoned for 20 years.

When I chatted with her on the sofa as we were waiting for dinner to be served, I asked her, where she got the courage to speak up for justice in such an unforgiving environment for all these years. She gave me a matter of fact answer, saying she did what she thought was right. She gave no indication that she thought she had done anything extraordinary.

Perhaps that is a clue to who she was—a woman who followed her conscience, no matter what the cost. Even now, I would still like to become more like her.

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