Eulogy | Helen Suzman
Updated: May 7
Eulogy of Helen Suzman given at her funeral at West Park Cemetery.
The eulogy delivered at Helen Suzman’s funeral, which was published in the ‘Star’ newspaper in January 2009.
At a funeral as we confront the seriousness and sadness of death, and the fact that we are all equal before G-d, according to Jewish custom. Ordinary protocol is not observed and we do not welcome by name any distinguished attendees. At the same time, of course, looking around this room we see so many people gathered from all different walks of life because the loss of Helen Suzman is a loss on so many different levels.
It is a loss on a personal level. And at this time we extend our condolences to the family; to her daughters – Francie and Pattie, to her son-in-law Geoffrey, to her grand-daughter Josie and her husband Jamie, to her grandson Danny and his wife Dafna and their little son Leo her great grandson – newly arrived in the world who has come from afar to attend. And, of course, gathered here this morning is the Jewish community because Helen Suzman was proud of her Jewish identity. She asked to be buried next to her beloved husband – the late doctor Mozie Suzman – and she asked to be buried in accordance with Jewish rites.
Her forebears fled persecution in Eastern Europe and found a haven on this southern tip of Africa. She grew up in a Jewish home, went to cheder, lit Sabbath candles and was very much a person who identified with the community. And, therefore, as the South African Jewish Community, we are gathered here this morning as part of this diverse group because we also have experienced the loss on a communal level.
And then, of course, as South Africans we are gathered here. Flags are flying at half-mast across the country. We have the great honour of the President and former Presidents who have gathered here together with the highest office bearers in our land to pay tribute because Helen Suzman was a great daughter of South Africa, and it is a loss for South Africa as well. And, indeed, her death is a loss for the world. Humanity has lost a great sister. And so, all human beings around the world, in a sense, have lost a great soul today.
But gathered in this room is the dream that Helen Suzman fought for. The dream of a South Africa united in its diversity – and so this is part of what we gather to do, to pay respects to her and to remember what she did for all of us. But at that time, as we begin to pay respects, we do so with humility. And I think the words of former President Nelson Mandela are very apt, at this point, to remind us of the humility that we need to adopt at this time. He wrote to her on the occasion of her 85th birthday: “It is not for us or anyone else to sing your praises. Your place is ensured in the history of this country. Your courage, integrity and principled commitment to justice have marked you as one of the outstanding figures in the history of public life in South Africa.”
And so even before we begin with any remarks, it is important for all of us, with humility, to acknowledge that whatever we say this morning, and whatever tributes are paid to Helen Suzman, to remember these words. “It is not for us or anyone else to sing your praises because your place is ensured in the history of this country, no matter what we say.”
But having said that, let’s try and understand a little bit more about her legacy. What is leadership about? What did she teach us of what it means to be a great human being and a great leader? The 36 years she served so loyally as a member of parliament for Houghton, what did she teach us in that? And I think that perhaps the best way to understand it is from an ancient passage in the Talmud where leadership is described as follows: (Hebrew) “not power and glory, but service.” And one of the commentaries explains that “power” refers her to brutal raw power exercised with insensitivity. And that is what Helen fought all her live – brutal power. That word in Afrikaans which sums it all up – kragdaadigheid – the abuse of power.
Helen would often say “I don’t like bullies”. She also used to say, “all I want is simple justice.” She was driven by a passion to right the injustices and to correct the wrongs of the world. Those who are close to her say she had no elaborate political philosophy. She simply tried to help the weak and the vulnerable. Helen Suzman was the living embodiment of the injunction in the Book of Deuteronomy – “justice, justice, thou shalt pursue”. When the verse says justice must be pursued, it is telling us that justice is not easily attained and needs relentless pursuit to be achieved. Helen Suzman relentlessly pursued the cause of justice and fairness in South Africa. She fought apartheid because apartheid was the ultimate abuse of power. It was built on the destruction of the rule of law and so she fought it. And that is echoed in the ethos of the Five Books in the Bible where 36 times we are warned to be kind to those who are vulnerable and not to oppress. And so she fought oppression because of her creed of simple justice.
And history must record that she was one of the great freedom fighters for the liberation of South Africa from the tyranny of apartheid. The tools of her liberation struggle were not guns or the politics of resistance, but the use of the machinery – the beast of the apartheid parliament – to attack the system itself. She used her parliamentary privilege to prod, attack and discredit the National Party government. But she did so with one of her most effective weapons, her wit and humour. She sparkled with life. She had a keen sense of humour which was used very effectively in parliamentary debates – a sense of humour which demonstrated that despite her unshakeable conviction of the righteousness of her cause, she was not self-righteous. Her humour also reflected her fiery independent spirit that challenged conventional wisdom and was able to pierce the façade of the webs that people spin. In short, she had chutzpah. And she used that chutzpah to tackle the bullies. And the Nats were the bullies. They tried to bully her about being a woman, about being a Jew. Helen Suzman was a proud Jew. She identified strongly with the Jewish people and the State of Israel and never tried to hide her identity even though she was subjected to anti-Semitic abuse in Parliament as well as outside of it. Many a time in Parliament she was told, “go back to Israel”; “go back to Lithuania”. She was subjected to chauvinistic jibes. PW Botha, the former President, once said to her – “if my wife chatted like that I would know what to do” and “she is like water dripping on a tin roof.” And then she records in her memoirs how one member of Parliament caught her in the lobby and said, “Helen you’ve got a man’s brain.” And she writes there in her memoirs: “his was not a brain I admire.” But it was that kind of chutzpah that prodded and poked and made people uncomfortable.
In her memoirs, she records with great pride what she said to Prime Minister Vorster. “I was glad to have the opportunity” she writes “to tell Vorster face-to-face during the 1969 session that I had seen a survey in the Sunday Times which said that over 70% of the white population thought he was doing a good job, and only 0.3% thought that he was no good. I said I would stand up and be counted amongst the 0.3%”. And she tackled him head on. PW Botha, she famously did not get on with him, and at one point in a parliamentary debate he said, “The Honourable Member from Houghton doesn’t like me”. So she interjected and said, “Don’t like you – I can’t stand you”. She knew how to deal with the bullies.
But on a more serious and profound level, she was a voice. She is described by many as one of the great parliamentarians of modern times. Her feistiness and temerity in shaming Prime Ministers gave hope to millions of South Africans and, indeed, to the citizens of the world all of who witnessed that in the midst of the darkness of apartheid, there was a voice clear and strong speaking out against injustice and oppression. She was the voice of millions of disenfranchised and oppressed South Africans – the victims of the evils of apartheid. And she used her parliamentary privilege in ways to undermine the system. For example, she used her parliamentary privilege to publicise information that otherwise would have been censored because in parliament nothing can be censored and the press were free to report on anything that took place in Parliament. It was a debate I was having with the family in the last few days but I found it in her memoirs. In fact, she used the opportunity of her parliamentary podium to read out a large section of the closing statement of former President Nelson Mandela at his treason trial. Those were words that no one could hear because they were censored; but she used her platform in parliament to read out his speech so that his speech could then be reported in the press. That is how she used her parliamentary privilege. And, of course, she asked questions – exposing the inequities and, indeed, the stupidity of the system. And there is the famous retort when one of the government ministers said that her questions are embarrassing to the country and it is famously known and reported very widely in the last few days that she responded: “It is not the questions but the answers that are embarrassing”.
And she used her parliamentary position to oppose the iniquitous apartheid legislation. One example, in particular, in 1963 the National Party brought before Parliament the 90-day detention without trial legislation. And in the end the United Party supported it. And she was the only person who voted against it. But what she did was very clever. In order to demonstrate the stupidity and the evil of what was taking place, what she did was when the Speaker of the House called for the ‘yeses’ and the ‘no’s’ she was the only no. And she then called for divide, which in terms of the parliamentary rules is that it’s conventionally used when you can’t judge the numbers and you have to then separate. The ‘yeses’ then sit on one side of the house and the ‘no’s’ sit on the other side. But she used it to embarrass them because the whole Parliament moved over to one side and she sat there as the only ‘no’ sitting by herself, all on that side, symbolic of standing up against what was going on. And her courage was recognised. After that 1963 vote, she received a message from the late Chief Albert Luthuli who wrote to her as follows: “I take this opportunity to express my deep appreciation and admiration for your heroic and lone stand against a most reactionary parliament. I most heartily congratulate you for your untiring efforts in a situation that would frustrate and benumb many.” And then he said a very important phrase: “Forever remember you are a bright star in a dark chamber. You are a bright star in a dark chamber where the lights of liberty are going out one by one. You are a bright star in a dark chamber.” So she gave hope to him, to the leadership of the struggle, and indeed to ordinary South Africans.
In the newspaper, the African newspaper, The World on 31 March 1966 covering the election – which had been a disastrous election – and these are the words: “Africans today hail the victory of Mrs Helen Suzman in the Houghton constituency during the general election yesterday. Some leaders described it as the news of the year for Africans. Many township people sat next to their radios last night waiting for the results. There was widespread jubilation in buses and trains from Soweto and other townships today as news flashed that Mrs Suzman had retained her Houghton seat.” She gave people hope and her opposition and her position as a Member of Parliament gave hope despite the fact that she stood alone.
But the other part of her leadership, and going back to that Talmudic statement, that “leadership is not power and glory but service”, Helen Suzman’s devotion to public life was about serving people and not exercising power over them. It was not about what she could take from her position as member of parliament, but how she could use her position to do good in the world. She was not ambitious to become, but rather ambitious to do. She concerned herself with the plight of individuals – following the Talmudic teaching – that to save one life is to save a world. She dealt diligently and to the best of her ability with hundreds of requests that came to her from far and wide – even those far beyond the borders of her own constituency. Suffering South Africans of all colours turned to her for help. She never let go and tried her best to solve each one of their problems, doing work which was nearly always unsung and unreported in the public domain. And this is important, because goodness done in private when the world cannot see is the real test of a great person. With kindness and compassion she visited prisoners to bring comfort and to fight for ways of improving their conditions; and she visited all the famous political prisoners at a time when it certainly caused her great discomfort and it required a tremendous amount of courage to do so and to overcome great resistance from the authorities.
Her family tells me that people phoned her house at all hours of the day and night looking for help. She made herself accessible. Her phone number was listed and it was part of her personal mission to help as many people as possible in the most practical way. She pursued justice with a relentless work ethic and with a practical mind to carry through on the finest details, realising that great ideas and great ideals must be implemented in order for them to bear fruit. Helen Suzman demonstrated the power of words but she was also a woman of action. She did things, she got things done. She did practical things to help people. She got involved with the nitty gritty, the messiness of the details of people’s lives in order to help them. She was a practical politician focused on the minutiae of the implementation of policy.
But she had courage, courage to stand alone. For 13 years she was the only member of the Progressive Party. She had courage to stand alone and she believed she could make a difference. Because many people would say, if you can’t change the whole system and you can’t save the world then don’t even start. And she quotes the words of Robert Kennedy on a visit that he made to South Africa, and these words clearly inspired her because she includes them in her memoirs. Robert Kennedy addresses this very point and he says: “Few will have the greatness to bend history itself, but each of us can work to change a small portion of events. And in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation. It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped. Each time a man stands up for an ideal or acts to improve the lot of others or strikes out against injustice, he sends forth a tiny ripple of hope – and crossing each other from a million different centres of energy and daring – those ripples build a current which can sweep down the mightiest walls of oppression.” Helen received a note from Bobby Kennedy. He wrote to her and it’s recorded in her memoirs, “You are an inspiration to all of us. Those of us who live in a different atmosphere under different circumstances and yet are struggling with the same kinds of problems may become wary and discouraged at times. But we shall always find the stimulation to continue knowing that Helen Suzman never gave up.”
Helen Suzman never gave up. And that took courage and conviction. It took a sense that even though the world is in disrepair and it follows the Talmudic doctrine of what we call Tikkun Olam – the moral injunction to fix the world. That expression in Hebrew – Tikkun – which means to fix, Olam is the world – is premised on the fact that the world is broken. Tikkun Olam means ‘to fix the world,’ but it means the world is broken. And many people when they see a broken world become disheartened. When Helen saw a broken world, she came forward to fix it. She never gave up. And she was never disheartened by the fact that she could not complete the task. As it says in the Talmud, in Ethics of the Fathers (Hebrew): “The work is not for you to complete but neither are you free to rest from it altogether.” You can never complete the work. The fight for freedom, the fight for a better society is never complete. And Helen was prepared to work knowing that she could never complete the work – and that took courage. But what the commentaries point out on that passage in the Talmud – the work isn’t complete but an individual’s contribution to that work can be complete.
And we can say today to Helen Suzman that you completed your work for us. The work was not complete – the struggle goes on – but you completed your work for us and for that we thank you.
She was a role model for us all and let her memory, in conclusion, and her life be an inspiration and a guiding light for all of us as we confront the exciting, daunting and sacred task of building a truly great country for all South Africans. May G-d grant us the wisdom and strength to follow her teachings. Through her life she taught us that leadership is about service and not power and glory; that life is about giving and not taking. That in a cynical and selfish world, we must strive to be idealistic. That one human being is a whole world; that kindness and compassion are everything; that we live with the courage of clear moral convictions; that we must work hard to pursue justice with relentless energy and dedication; that actions speak louder than words; that we must never despair in the face of enormous challenge; that we must stand up for the vulnerable and never tolerate the bullying of abusers of power; that real integrity is about getting the job done. And that even though we cannot complete the work, we must still strive to do what we can. That the pursuit of simple justice must be the calling of our lives and that the struggle for freedom continues always. These were her values and this is her legacy. Her life was a brilliant and shining gift to us all.
May G-d Almighty comfort and bless us all, her bereaved family, friends and fellow South Africans. May her memory be a blessing.