SKOKIE — The telephone call came from an Oklahoma teacher who wanted to thank curator Dr. Jill Vexler for her exhibition on one of South Africa’s greatest anti-apartheid leaders.
Since that leader’s name wasn’t Nelson Mandela, it pretty much guaranteed that the exhibition would be enlightening to the many people not familiar with this story.
Helen Suzman was a white woman, but in more than three decades working in the South African Parliament, she stood up against an unjust system of apartheid, fearlessly speaking out when it wasn’t always easy to do so.
“The caller didn’t leave her name,” Vexler said, “but she said she was embarrassed she didn’t know about her.”
Many people probably don’t, which is an injustice in itself — an injustice that this comprehensive exhibition makes right.
The latest stop for “Helen Suzman: Fighter For Human Rights,” is the Illinois Holocaust Museum & Education Center. On view in one of the museum’s relatively new upstairs hallway galleries, it contains a series of graphic panels that take visitors from Suzman’s early life through her retirement and beyond.
If anyone wonders whether her story belongs in this museum, consider the symmetry of the missions of both the exhibition and the museum.
“I think it’s an extraordinary example of how one person can make a difference in the world,” said Vexler about the traveling Suzman program. “Not only one person, but a Jewish white woman who would not be stopped from speaking out against injustice.”
The importance of one person creating positive change in the world is celebrated every day at Skokie’s heralded museum. In many ways, it is its heart and soul, and although the museum has tackled genocides and other forms of injustice around the world, this becomes its first exploration of South African apartheid.
“The Helen Suzman show fits our mission well,” said Arielle Weininger, the museum’s chief curator of collections and exhibitions. “Our mission deals not only with education about the Holocaust, but also about other human rights violations, other genocides. As I can, I try and bring in other stories for us to tell.”
Helen Suzman’s life is quite another story to tell.
“You have to take a stand against something you know to be wrong,” Suzman once said, perhaps the statement that best sums up her decades of activism.
Suzman made a difference
She served as a member of the Parliament from 1953 to 1989, the sole opponent to apartheid during a 13-year period from 1961-74 when she was the governing body’s only member of the Progressive Party.
Using photographs, personal letters, quotations from speeches and news articles, the exhibition retraces four decades of Suzman’s life and vision.
The mentality that she fought against is immediately identifiable in a brief documentary that is part of the exhibition. Seen on television with a pro-apartheid candidate, Suzman of the Progressive Party denounces the two larger parties.
“Neither party, in fact, is prepared to give the black people of South Africa a meaningful say politically in the country as a whole,” she boldly asserts.
When she is accused of advocating for the black man to be put in charge of South Africa, Suzman is quick to respond.
“You share,” she says. “There’s no reason you have to supersede white supremacy with black supremacy. You can have a multi-racial Parliament in South Africa surely.”
Her political career began in 1947 when the Institute of Race Relations asked her to prepare evidence for a commission on South African blacks. A lecturer at Wits University at the time, Suzman grew shocked at learning the devastating ramifications of apartheid on blacks and their family life.
Through the years, she somehow was able to hold her parliamentary seat as many colleagues lost theirs, and she found herself the only liberal voice at a crucial time. Her outspokenness was especially important because the press was not allowed to print information unless it came out of Parliament.
Suzman served under five pro-apartheid prime ministers and visited Mandela for the first time in 1967 — when he was already imprisoned on Robben Island. She took Mandela’s complaints about heinous treatment of prisoners and worked for reform.
Year after year, Suzman raised issues about prison conditions and the release of prisoners. She formed a deep and important friendship with Mandela and his wife, Winnie, along the way.
The exhibition’s multiple panels cover Suzman’s family roots, her early years, her school days, her political awakening, her association with the United Party and the birth of the Progressive Party, her years as a lone voice, her key election victories and more.
She announced her retirement in 1989 and died in 2009 in her sleep at age 91.
But Suzman lived long enough to see the exhibition first mounted in Cape Town. She embraced the program, not because of its focus on her, but because it recaptures history and the importance of speaking out against an unjust system of inequality.
The exhibition also undeniably captures Suzman’s boldness and bravery, her passion and wit, her fiercely articulate advocacy for fairness.
“Instead of sitting on their green benches in Parliament, insulated like fish in an aquarium,” she once said, “every Nationalist Member of Parliament should be required to go to a Black funeral heavily disguised as a human being…to get some idea of the intensity of feeling, of the heavy tide of resistance sweeping through the townships.”
Vexler said the exhibition was never intended to travel, but there is a universality about Suzman’s fight for justice in South Africa. The recent death of Mandela has made the show even more timely, perhaps, but Suzman’s story has a long shelf life anyway and should remain important for years to come.
“Helen certainly was one of the most important anti-apartheid fighters in South Africa,” Weininger said. “She definitely needs to be recognized for that.”