Remarkable People

ID #5240

Helen Suzman, Lecturer, Politician and Anti-Apartheid Activist, South Africa.

Helen Suzman (1917–2009) was an anti-apartheid activist and politician. She was born Helen Gavronsky to Jewish immigrants. She studied economics and statistics at The University of the Witwatersrand and at 19 married Dr. Moses Suzman. They had two daughters before she returned to university as a lecturer in 1944. She gave up teaching for politics and was elected to the House of Assembly as a member of the United Party in 1953.

Suzman was noted for her criticism of the National Party's policy of apartheid when this was atypical of white South Africans. As an English-speaking Jewish woman in a parliament dominated by Calvinist Afrikaner men, she found herself even more of an outsider. She was once accused by a minister of asking questions in parliament that embarrassed the country, to which she replied: “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa -- it is your answers".

She switched to the liberal Progressive Party in 1959 and represented Houghton as its sole Member of Parliament, and the sole parliamentarian opposed to apartheid, from 1961 to 1974. She was often harassed by the police and her phone was tapped. She had a special technique for dealing with eavesdropping, which was to blow a whistle into the mouthpiece of the phone.

Later, as parliamentary opposition to apartheid grew, the Progressive Party merged with Harry Schwarz's Reform Party and became the Progressive Reform Party. It was renamed the Progressive Federal Party, and Suzman was joined in parliament by liberal colleagues such as Colin Eglin. She visited Nelson Mandela while he was in prison and was present when he signed the new constitution in 1996.

She was awarded 27 honorary doctorates from universities around the world was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. She received many awards from religious and human rights organizations around the world. Queen Elizabeth II made her an honorary Dame Commander (Civil Division) of the Order of the British Empire in 1989. Suzman died on New Years Day 2009, aged 91. Achmat Dangor, CEO of the Nelson Mandela Foundation, said Suzman was a "great patriot and a fearless fighter against apartheid".

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Last update: 2014-05-14 16:44
Author: Alan McIver
Revision: 1.3

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