Remembering Two Greats From South Africa

January 6, 2009
Miriam Makeba and Helen Suzman

About the Author: Gregory L. Garland serves as Media and Outreach Coordinator for the U.S. Department of State's Bureau of African Affairs.

Two great leaders of the struggle against apartheid have recently passed away, leaving South Africa and the rest of the world a better place for their heroism: Miriam Makeba and Helen Suzman. In fact, it is impossible to imagine modern South Africa without these two very different women who devoted their lives to ending state-sanctioned racism.

Miriam Makeba, who died November 10 at the age of 76, burst onto the world scene starring in a 1959 anti-apartheid documentary, Come Back, Africa. In the 1960s, she gained fame as a recording artist in the United States and was banned from returning to South Africa because of her activism. For Americans of that time, Makeba was the face and voice of black South Africa.

She lived a life that wrote the book on what we now call “citizen diplomacy”. She spoke especially to other Africans and the African Diaspora, the descendants of Africans brought as slaves to the Americas. Her marriage to Trinidad-born black power advocate Stokely Carmichael in 1968 resulted in the cancellation of commercial record deals in the United States, but cemented her image as a leader in the struggle for freedom in South Africa. It also symbolized the marriage of the twin struggles for racial justice on opposite ends of the Atlantic. She can claim much of the credit for planting the seeds of the anti-apartheid movement in the United States.

Helen Suzman, who died on New Years’s Day at 91, could have lived a quiet, comfortable life as an academic in the heavily Jewish Johannesburg suburb of Houghton, which she always called home (and where Nelson Mandela has chosen to spend his retirement). Yet, she chose a different path. For 36 years, she sat in the all-white parliament as a member of the anti-apartheid opposition. For 13 of those years, she was the lone anti-apartheid parliamentarian, and often the lone woman in a chamber filled with white men. She used her parliamentary privileges to the full extent to shine light on injustice.

Her canny ability to use international media contributed enormously to the education of much of world about the evil of the South African system. I can remember listening as a teenager to Suzman on my jerry-rigged short-wave radio that always managed to get the BBC World Service. Her eloquence and biting wit always cut to the chase of apartheid. Her lonely voice, repeated over decades, goaded us Americans to take South Africa seriously as an affront to our own values.

These two extraordinary women represented the best of South Africa. Neither ever gave up the fight against injustice, even after the cherished goal of majority rule had arrived. They deserve more than our thanks. They deserve to be remembered for generations to come for what two human beings can accomplish despite the bonds of race, gender, religion and nationality. I for one will tell their stories, for they truly belong to all humanity.



Illinois, USA
January 6, 2009

Cathy in Illinois writes:

Thank you for your coverage of two leaders who made a difference! I knew of Ms. Makeba, but to learn of Ms. Suzman and to see that she was Jewish, was wonderful. CW

January 7, 2009

Karen writes:

Thank you so much for writing this piece! I think that we forget how much women contributed to the anti-apartheid movement, and to world progess in general.

January 7, 2009

Martina in Benin writes:

Thank you for your heartfelt testimonial. Very timely and eminently well-deserved in both cases. Their accomplishments will live on!

(When I worked in the consulate in Jo'burg ('97-'00), Ms. Suzman came, very humbly and like everybody else, to get her visa -- something some newly minted dignitaries (of both colors) did not "deign" to do.

Amandla to you both!!


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