Alum’s perspective: Helen Suzman & apartheid activism

I stumbled across this Jan. 3rd New American Media piece “I Helped Smear Helen Suzman” by Brian Shott ’90, offering his reflections following the recent death of apartheid activist and divestment critic Helen Suzman. She came to speak at Wesleyan in 1989, to great student protest. Short’s article is a fascinating perspective on the history of liberal activism at Wes:

Anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman died on Thursday at the age of 91. As accolades from around the world pour in, news reports also mention the controversy she sparked on college campuses in the late 1980s.

I’ll say. At my alma mater in Connecticut in 1989, we almost rioted when we heard Suzman had been invited to speak — a fact that, today, fills me with contrition.

Suzman, who helped found South Africa’s liberal Progressive Party, was for 13 years the lone voice against apartheid in the South African parliament. She spoke out fiercely against racist legislation, and frequently visited anti-apartheid activists, including Nelson Mandela, in the nation’s notorious prisons.

So what was our beef with Suzman at Wesleyan University, a small liberal arts school in Middletown, Conn.?

We and other campus activists were incensed that Suzman opposed economic sanctions against South Africa. Nor did she favor the divestment movement, still going strong in the late 1980s, which pushed colleges and municipalities to relinquish their financial holdings in companies that did business in South Africa.

Suzman argued that such actions were counterproductive and primarily hurt black South Africans.

We didn’t care that Suzman met with imprisoned leaders of the freedom movement; she obviously wasn’t listening to their nearly unified calls for sanctions. We thought she should resign her ineffectual post in an inherently racist system. And we were convinced that the university chose her to speak as a way of bolstering its refusal to immediately divest.

Fair enough, I suppose, except for the conspiratorial part. But what followed the announcement of her impeding campus speech was despicable.

In the days before Suzman’s arrival, campus radicals started a smear campaign in the university’s alternative press. I remember editing articles that attacked Suzman, of whom I had never heard. Quotations of Suzman’s own words, which I and other politically motivated editors never fully checked, made her sound downright racist.

When the day of Suzman’s speech finally came, many students couldn’t fit into the campus cinema where she was scheduled to speak. So we demanded a larger venue — we made a lot of “demands” in those days — and eventually a crowd of about 300 marched across campus to the chapel. There, black students from Wesleyan’s Malcolm X House lined up behind Suzman, who stood at a podium; they and others in the crowd hissed derisively (and some applauded) as she defended her views on sanctions.

And defend herself she did. Suzman had read everything written about her in the in the days preceding her talk. By reading aloud the complete text of her selectively quoted remarks, Suzman revealed a propaganda effort by left-wing students that would have made Joseph McCarthy proud.

…In the end, in a question and answer session after her talk, Suzman made mincemeat of most arguments for divestment from the campus left. She was like a lion. She destroyed us.

The whole article is worth a read. So, do Brian Shott‘s words have a lesson for us as Wesleyan students today? Are we still too quick to jump to administration conspiracy theories and to dismiss more conservative voices? More importantly, does our culture of activism overpower our desire and ability to meet concrete goals through activism? I don’t know, but it’s certainly some interesting food for thought.

8 thoughts on “Alum’s perspective: Helen Suzman & apartheid activism

  1. Sheek

    It seems like this kind of single-mindedness was a much bigger problem on campus back in the day. Narrow-minded radicalism isn’t nearly as rampant as it used to be, I think most Wes students are much more pragmatic these days.

  2. Sheek

    It seems like this kind of single-mindedness was a much bigger problem on campus back in the day. Narrow-minded radicalism isn’t nearly as rampant as it used to be, I think most Wes students are much more pragmatic these days.

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