The Diminutive, Energetic, Resolute, Chain-smoker Who Fed Millions

Ina Perlman, a South African Jewish activist who quietly saved millions in the face of starvation with Operation Hunger, the organization she founded at the height of apartheid, died at the age of 86.

JOHANNESBURG – In the mid-1990s, when apartheid in South Africa officially ended, an uncomfortable question was raised: Why, as a community, didn’t the Jews of South Africa fight it?

Immanuel Suttner’s 1997 book, "Cutting through the Mountain: Interviews with South African Jewish Activists", written in collaboration with a number of Jewish journalists and intellectuals, sought to respond by profiling 27 Jewish activists who did do something. 

The book includes well-known figures such as Nadine Gordimer, the Nobel literature laureate and the late Helen Suzman, for decades the lone anti-apartheid voice in parliament. One of the book’s eight sections, called “The Real Heroes,” contains interviews with Justice Albie Sachs, the late Rowley Arenstein, Suzman, Shawn Slovo, daughter of prominent politician Joe Slovo, and someone named Ina Perlman, who died in Knysna on June 28 at age 86.

With history, people tend to remember only the main players. In regards to “the Struggle,” as the battle against apartheid is now referred to in South Africa, that includes Nelson Mandela, Suzman, and Joe Slovo. People like Perlman often don’t get their due. And now even the big names, with the exception of Mandela, seem to be slipping out of the public mind.

The African National Congress (ANC), which has been the ruling political party since 1994, has honored anti-apartheid activists in a number of ways but has paid surprisingly little attention to Perlman, a diminutive, energetic, resolute, chain-smoker, born in Bloemfontein in 1926 whose humanitarian efforts during apartheid affected millions. 

In the 1970s, when apartheid was at its height, starvation swept the rural areas of South Africa.  By the 1980s, millions were suffering from chronic hunger, especially children.

In 1981, Perlman established Operation Hunger, a non-profit organization that she ran practically alone (at least initially) from a small office at the South African Institute of Race Relations in Johannesburg.

Perlman begged for leftovers at all the large grocery stores, packed the goods into her Volkswagen Kombi van and then travelled day after day all over the country to faraway villages in the Eastern Cape and Limpopo. These were the days long before mobile phones or even a decent land line system and the isolated areas to which she travelled on deserted roads were extremely dangerous.

Professor Peter Delius, Perlman’s son-in-law, recalled at her memorial service how he used to hitch rides with her “out of pure cowardice.”

“Sekhukhuneland was wracked by violence in the mid-1980s and I was frankly scared to go on my own,” he says. “But Ina, chain-smoking in the front of the Kombi with her beloved friend Moses Mokoena driving her, showed no signs of apprehension. I do think in retrospect that all the passive smoking I did on those trips was a far greater threat to my well-being than the comrades [those combating apartheid] or the security police.”

By 1987 Operation Hunger had a budget of 18 million South African rand – a great deal of money in those days. By 1991, the budget had risen to R30 million and the organization was providing food to about 1.8 million people and engaging an additional 200,000 people in income-generating projects.

The apartheid authorities did not care for Operation Hunger because it publicized the starvation of black people. One story, apparently circulated by the security police in those days, was that Operation Hunger money had been used for breast implants for Winnie Mandela. Nasty rumors aside, Perlman did work with, and support, the Mandelas in significant ways.

“We remember [Perlman’s] great work on behalf of the poor and how she helped to feed millions of people throughout South Africa,” stated the Nelson Mandela Centre for Memory. “She also hired Mr. Mandela’s daughter Zindzi in the dark days of apartheid and assisted Mrs. Winnie [Madikizela] Mandela in starting a crèche [day care center] after she was banished to a bare and unforgiving existence in the harsh Free State town of Brandfort.”

So why has Ina Perlman not been lionized to the same extent as other activists who probably achieved less than she did?

For one thing, Perlman didn’t flaunt her politics, even though she doubtless felt as strongly about political injustice as anyone. Her job wasn’t preaching but feeding hungry people. As a result, she opposed economic sanctions, a position that didn’t go down well with ANC radicals.  In fact, she said little about the ANC (unlike, say, Nadine Gordimer) and was never one to pick up the rallying cry of “revolution.”

Another reason for her modest appreciation may be that the black radicals considered her organization, which helped so many people survive hunger, smacked too much of charity, a sort of “white hand-out,” and not of grassroots political action.

“A truly national organization linking to the more marginalized areas of the country had been created,” Delius wrote of Operation Hunger, “and a considerable reservoir of skills and experience… had been built up. Sadly, this resource was not as fully drawn upon post-1994 [when apartheid ended] as it probably should have been.”

Perlman’s husband Dr Mike Perlman died in 2011. She is survived by four children, among them the well-known radio journalist, John Perlman, and six grandchildren.