Sheila Suttner passed away on the eve of her 97th birthday, after a short struggle with cancer. She is survived by her children Raymond, John, Sally, twins Anne and Alan, six grandchildren and six great grandchildren.
Sheila was born in South Africa to Jewish migrant parents from Russia and Manchester. She grew up in Cape Town and spent her formative years in Onrust, a small seaside town in the Western Cape. She went to university at the age of 40, following the sudden passing of her husband Bertie.
Sheila graduated from the University of Witwatersrand with her oldest son, Raymond. She worked as a social worker and was a founding member of the Avril Elizabeth Home for children with disabilities in Johannesburg, before being appointed the Dean of Jubilee Hall at the University of Witwatersrand.
Sheila migrated to Perth in 1984 after her son Raymond was sentenced to several periods of imprisonment and tortured for his legal political activities and illegal underground work in the liberation struggle against Apartheid. Upon her arrival she immersed herself in the Australian anti-Apartheid, Indigenous land rights and environmental movements. Sheila was in the forefront of a number of campaigns for the release of her son and other political prisoners in South Africa.
Raymond held leadership positions in the African National Congress, South African Communist Party and the United Democratic Front. He spent long periods of time in solitary confinement, and was one of the few white South African prisoners kept in the notorious Pretoria Central Complex along with Denis Goldberg and Jeremy Cronin. He served two periods of imprisonment totalling 11 years and, after his release in 1988, was placed under house arrest. In 1994, Raymond formed part of the first post liberation government in South Africa led by Nelson Mandela.
Sheila was a gregarious, intelligent, funny and compassionate individual. She had friends from all over the world and actively involved herself in the working-class struggle in Australia. She was extremely hospitable and opened her home to innumerable anti-Apartheid, Indigenous, anti-imperialist and environmental activist functions. She hosted a wide range of liberation movement figures including the current South African president Cyril Ramaphosa, and leaders of the South African, Australian and international labour union movement. She frequently quipped “come the revolution, I will do the catering”.
Sheila was invited to speak at many International Women’s and May Day events. She worked to build inclusive united campaigns and rejected sectarianism, working with people across the political spectrum. She was actively involved in a range of organisations including the Campaign Against Racial Exploitation, Australians for Native Title and Reconciliation, Community Aid Abroad and West Australians for Racial Equality.
Sheila was arrested the 1992 while protesting at the old Swan Brewery site on Mounts Bay Road alongside her close friend and comrade, the late Clarrie Yaluritja Isaacs; and Noongar elder Mingali Wanjurri McGlade.
She told Green Left at the time: “How horrifying to see that the same tactics that have been used in the land of my birth are being used in my adopted land to dispossess the Indigenous people who asked for nothing for themselves, other than the protection of a sacred site and the preservation of their cultural heritage”.
She was a life member of the Communist Party of Australia and continued to read Guardian – the Workers’ Weekly and Green Left until she died. She was also an active member of the Greens and later in life she joined the West Australian Voluntary Euthanasia Society, picketting outside Parliament House as she had done during the abortion debate in the 1990s.
Sheila was a comrade, a good friend and a mother to many displaced and dispossessed people around Perth. She was a devoted mother and grandmother.
Above all, Sheila was an indefatigable worker who immersed herself tirelessly in every task without the slightest hint of elitism. Sheila will be sadly missed and remembered by her family as well as the broader progressive movement in Western Australia.