By Harriet P. Gross
Apartheid. This loaded word officially entered the South African vocabulary in 1948, when the government’s white majority decreed total separation — physical and political — for the country’s blacks; for all those natives whose ancestors had been there from the beginning.
The whole world knows of Nelson Mandela, who spoke up for his people and suffered for it before his ultimate triumph. But too few know about a most unlikely champion of the many who were banished to “townships” of poverty and distress. A woman. A white woman. A white Jewish woman. Helen Suzman.
When you say the name aloud, it should be pronounced Soos-man, not Suzz-man, a white Jewish Dallasite who moved here from South Africa has told me. There are many like him; currently, they are working with the Dallas Jewish Historical Society to compile their “Roots to Boots” history. And they are also sharing the story of this compatriot who never left home.
A traveling exhibition, “Helen Suzman: Fighter for Human Rights,” originated with the Kaplan Centre of Jewish Studies and Research at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. It spent several recent weeks on display at the Dallas JCC, and now may be seen at the University of Texas at Dallas. The exhibit has inspired a special program there: the Helen Suzman Forum on Life Under Apartheid, scheduled for next Wednesday evening, Feb. 25. Everyone is invited to a reception and exhibit viewing from 6 to 7:30 p.m. in UTD’s Edith O’Donnell Arts and Technology Building; the forum’s panel discussion will follow.
Joan Gremont, a South African Dallasite who has been championing this event, tells me that the panel “is a very diverse group — like the population of South Africa. What the panelists have in common is that they all lived in South Africa during the apartheid years, and were old enough to be aware of the political climate during that time.” They are:
Peter Anderson, 65, who came to the U.S. from Johannesburg on a Fulbright Scholarship, earned his M.A. and Ph.D. degrees at Boston University, and is now an associate professor at Austin College in Sherman, teaching post-colonial literature.
Lorimer Arendse, 42, who came to the U.S. from Cape Town at age 16. After years of Ohio residence, he moved to the Dallas area in 2007 to become associate principal at Grapevine High School; he is now Grand Prairie High School’s principal.
Warren Harmel, 65, who graduated from the University of Cape Town and interacted with Helen Suzman as a member of her Progressive Party in Johannesburg. He came to Texas in 1986 to work with an advertising agency, and is an advertising consultant today.
Harshad Lalloobhai, 58, who came to Texas from Johannesburg in 1984 for a job with American Corporation. He has long since become an entrepreneur, an owner of retail wine shops and hotels.
Peter Lewin, 67, who came to the U.S. from Johannesburg in 1979 when he was 23 years old. He has studied the economics of apartheid and is now at UTD as clinical professor of managerial economics.
Moderating this panel will be Jill Kelly, professor of African history, including South African history, at Southern Methodist University. She studied in Durban and lived in Pietermaritzburg while researching traditional authority in rural KwaZulu-Natal for her doctorate.
Apartheid finally died in 1994. Did Helen Suzman’s often-lonely voice of white opposition to South Africa’s racial politics contribute to its demise? She once answered the question herself: “It is hard to say if [I have] achieved anything, except to keep certain democratic values alive in this country…[but] You have to take a stand against something you know is wrong.” We do know that when she died peacefully in 2009 at the age of 91, flags across all of South Africa were lowered to half-staff in her honor.
For more information on the Suzman exhibit and forum, contact Lisa Morgan at 972-883-2952 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Come — and learn!