1992, Helen Suzman

Helen Suzman

A longtime member of the South African parliament, Suzman worked consistently, and often alone, to dismantle the system of apartheid.

For thirty-six years, from 1953 until 1989, as a member of the South African Parliament, Helen Suzman was the conscience of her nation. Never faltering, and often fighting alone, she stood strong and brave against the horrific evils of apartheid, enduring hostility, intimidation, and anti-semitism. In September 1992, Suzman traveled to Ann Arbor to accept the third Wallenberg Medal. “I was subjected to a good deal of abuse, both inside and outside Parliament,” she told the audience gathered in Rackham Auditorium for her Wallenberg Lecture. “I was called a sickly humanist. I was called a perfect example of an unpatriotic South African. I was castigated as one who fought only for the rights of black people…. And I was told in Parliament by the previous state president, Mr. P. W. Botha, that I was ‘a vicious little cat,’” she said. “I rather liked that. I can claim to have made a difference in keeping certain values alive in South Africa,” she continued. “But I myself was never imprisoned. I was never detained. I was never banned or banished. Nor did I personally suffer from any of the repressive laws that have been implemented in South Africa.”

However, courage can manifest itself in the absence of physical danger. “I was for thirteen years [from 1961 to 1974] the only member of the South African Parliament who represented a party whose policy was the rejection of race discrimination,” said Suzman. “My name was very often recorded in our congressional record as the only person voting against many of the racist laws which the government introduced during the period that I was the lone Progressive Party member.” In Parliament Suzman relentlessly battled the apartheid laws, which allowed detention without trial, curtailed the movement of black South Africans around the country and prohibited mixed marriages. She spoke out against an inferior educational system that condemned millions of black children to functional illiteracy. She made a point of attending the funerals of black people killed by the police, hoping that her presence might reduce the violence that set in motion the dreadful spiral of police shootings, deaths and funerals. As a member of Parliament she visited the dreary resettlement areas, where hundreds of thousands of displaced black people had been forced to live. “But none of these activities entailed real physical danger for me,” she said. “In fact, I never felt threatened.”

Little in her early life suggested that Helen Suzman would become a great leader in the fight against apartheid. She was born in Germiston, South Africa, in 1917, to Eastern European Jewish parents. Until 1948, she led a conventional life that included a happy marriage to a prominent doctor, the birth of two daughters and her undergraduate studies at the University of the Witwatersrand. That year, while teaching at the university, she was assigned the task of preparing evidence for a government commission. She was appalled to discover how harshly racial restrictions affected the mobility of South African blacks, and the problems they faced as they tried to raise their families and earn a living. This experience brought her into active politics. In 1953, with her husband’s encouragement and support, she stood for Parliament in Houghton, a liberal, silk-stocking district.

The beginning of the end of apartheid came in 1988 with the election of President F. W. de Klerk. “It is extremely satisfactory to me that many of the sentiments that I expressed during my thirty-six years as an MP, which were received with ill-concealed disgust by my colleagues in Parliament, have now become government policy,” she said in her Wallenberg Lecture.

In retirement, Suzman remained actively engaged in South African politics. She was a patron of the Helen Suzman Foundation, which promotes liberal values and solutions. Throughout the dark days of apartheid, Helen Suzman kept the glimmer of hope alive for a more liberal and democratic South Africa. One of the most extraordinary women of the twentieth century, Suzman acted apart from the immorality that surrounded her to speak with a clear and luminous voice for human rights.

Helen Suzman died in January 2009 in South Africa.