Helen Suzman

For her uncompromising moral determination displayed in advocating political and spiritual support to the disenfranchised non-white majority of South Africa … her political and inspirational leadership was the “still small voice” amidst the darkness. 

Helen Suzman, pictured at her Johannesburg home in November 2007.

Helen Suzman, pictured at her Johannesburg home in November 2007.

Helen Gavronsky was born in 1917 outside of Johannesburg. She was educated in a convent school before entering Witwatersrand University at age sixteen. She married Mosie Suzman, fourteen years her senior, when she was nineteen. After earning a degree in commerce, she worked for the War Supplies Board, and later at Witwatersrand University as a lecturer, until she was voted into Parliament as an MP in 1953, and began what was to be her calling. Suzman started her political life as an MP in the United Party, but the UP’s continued refusal to vote in favor of giving more land to black people drove her and several other colleagues to leave and form their own party, the Liberal Progressive Party, later renamed the Progressive Federal Party. In the next election, only Suzman won her Progressive seat. For the next thirteen years, six of which saw Suzman as the only woman in Parliament, Helen Suzman was the single voice against apartheid. 

But that voice was strong and unrelenting. Suzman armed herself not only with facts about the injustice that was happening to the black people in South Africa, but with stories from the people she would personally visit. She fought every bill designed to remove or deny civil rights and liberties to black people. Suzman was a secular Jewish woman who did not bring religion into her politics, excepting the association she made between the persecution of Jews in Russia and apartheid. She criticized the South African Jewish Board of Deputies for their policy of non-involvement in challenging apartheid by reminding them of the pogroms and restrictions placed on Russian Jews in the past. 

Predictably, her views and refusal to keep quiet or give up drew sharp criticism from her fellow MPs, the police, and other anti-apartheid protesters. When speaking in Parliament, she was heckled by her colleagues. When one politician asked her why she asked questions that embarrassed South Africa, Suzman replied, “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa; it is your answers.” Her phone was tapped, to which she responded by blowing a whistle into the mouthpiece. Outside protestors advocated sanctions against South Africa to force the country toward change, but Suzman disagreed, believing a peaceful reform was preferable to sanctions that would hurt blacks as well, rather than bring about change. These were unpopular beliefs for the protesters, but she stood firm. 

Through all of this open criticism directed at Helen Suzman, she was never physically detained, nor stopped from speaking her mind, as so many other anti-apartheid leaders were. She had immunity through her status as an MP, and she used that immunity to visit political prisoners such as Nelson Mandela several times at the Robben Island prison. Suzman consistently and openly challenged apartheid to shame her colleagues into changing the laws, and in 1974 she was joined by several other MPs. When, in 1989, President de Klerk released prisoners such as Mandela, and lifted the ban on liberation movements, Suzman stepped down from office to let other leaders take over. Eventually, in 1990, apartheid was dismantled and replaced by black majority rule. 

Helen Suzman kept her eyes on abuses of power, whether she saw them in apartheid as an MP, or thereafter in the black leadership of South Africa. Having dedicated her life to ending apartheid, Suzman was celebrated worldwide for her efforts towards a more just South Africa. She died in 2009 at the age of 91.