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Ivan Mfowethu Suzman Collection: Biography

Biographical Information Provided by
Ivan Mfowethu Suzman

The Ivan Mfowethu Suzman Maine Project on Southern Africa Video Library Collection.

Ivan Suzman's commentary on the videos in the collection.


Ivan Mfowethu Suzman lived in South Africa for seven years, from 1973 through 1979. During that time he was a post-graduate student at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, South Africa, part of the paleoanthropology research team there, teaching and researching in the medical school's department of anatomy.

His middle name, Mfowethu, is very unusual, in that it is an Nguni word, Nguni being in the language family of Zulu, Xhosa, and other related languages. The name, which means Our Brother, was given to him upon his return to the United States in 1979 by the black South African exiled community in the Minneapolis area where he was teaching at the University of Minnesota.

While in South Africa, he married an American, Lee Hoover. He continued to work on his doctorate, and she worked for an Afrikaans-language company. It was acommercial art firm and advertising agency with many government contracts, very involved with supporting the South African system.

The university was beset with strikes and walkouts while he was there. In the midst of the turmoil following the 1976 uprisings, called the Soweto riots by the white press and Soweto uprisings by the black press, he and his wife became the targets of surveillance. This was partly because of his last name, Suzman, the same as Helen Suzman, the very famous South African politician who is a relative of his by marriage. She was then the only member of the Progressive Party, later the Progressive Federal Party, in the entire parliament. Her name was enough to draw suspicion to them because of her great work in trying to filibuster the government about political prisoners and conditions of families whose relatives were in prison. She would try to get access to the prisoners for their families, and rights for them to be visited. At that time, while Nelson Mandela was in prison at Robben Island and Winnie Mandela was banished to the Orange Free State, she became their friend. She was especially famous for her anti-government rhetoric and efforts in parliament as a woman and the lone member of the Progressive Party against the nationalist party then in power.

He was on an educational visa and Lee on a temporary visitor's permit. In 1978 harassment began with a South African police agent following him through the stacks of the medical school library and going through his graduate student office. At the same time, someone tried to break into their apartment, and they were denied a telephone license (one had to have a license to have a telephone). They couldn't communicate by telephone from their apartment, and Lee would tell him of a man watching her, who turned out to be the same man watching him. Ultimately, he discovered that the agent was a South African of Asian origin, who worked in a bank, Volkskas, the People's Cash, as a teller.

They decided the pressure was becoming too much. At that time, more than half of the students who graduated from the medical school were leaving the country for places like Australia, England and Canada, and, occasionally, the United States, Germany, and France. They left the country in July of 1979 under continued surveillance after their car had disappeared and after he had been arrested and fingerprinted for illegal parking. Student demonstrations were going on constantly at the university, and there were many killings, including over 1000 Africans in Johannesburg following the Soweto uprisings. They left for the University of Minnesota where he taught in the department of anatomy and was an adjunct in the department of anthropology.

He then came to Maine to teach at the University of New England Medical School, and continued as a visiting lecturer at Bowdoin College in the department of sociology and anthropology and in the department of biology. He currently resides in Portland.

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