Helen Suzman

biography by Aster Gagnon

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Life & Accomplishments

Helen Suzman was born on November 17, 1917 in Germistown, a small mining town near Johannesburg. She studied as an economist at Witwatersrand University. She married and had two daughters, then returned to Witwatersrand to teach. However, she soon left the teaching field to become involve with politics. In 1953 she was elected to the House of Assembly as a member of the United Party, but she and others in Parliament soon broke away from the United Party to form the Progressive Party.

However, in the general election of 1961, all of the other Progressive MP's lost their seats in Parliament, leaving Suzman to be the only MP strongly opposed to apartheid for thirteen whole years. Despite harassment by the police, phone tapping, and insults while in Parliament, she continued to denounce the apartheid system and make every attempt she could to repeal and pevent pro-apartheid laws from passing through Parliament. She made speeches about the injustices of apartheid, she visited all-black areas, she visited Nelson Mandela in prison, and she repeatedly voted against laws that were anti-black. She successfully made herself a huge annoyance to to three successive prime ministers, Verwoerd, Vorster and Botha, by asking questions that were "embarrassing South Africa" in the words of one MP. In an interview, Suzman stated that she had tried to get in about twenty questions a day in Parliament. During times of declared emergency, the press wasn't allowed to publish anything that was unrest related unless it emanated from Parliament, so Suzman's "embarrassing" questions in Parliament made a huge difference.

Suzman was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, she was awarded 27 honorary doctorates from universities around the world, and she was made an honorary Dame Commander by Queen Elizabeth II, among many other awards. Suzman died of natural causes in Johannesburg on January 1, 2009.

Significance to Anti-Apartheid Movement

Helen Suzman was one of the only white South Africans in a place of political power during the apartheid period who openly criticized the apartheid politics. Her political stance was vastly different from that of most white South Africans at the time. She became friends with Nelson Mandela, who referred to her affectionately as "that courageous woman." The ANC, after her death in 2009, paid her tribute by saying that Suzman "became a thorn in the flesh of apartheid by openly criticizing segregation of Blacks by a Whites-only apartheid system," and the Nelson Mandela foundation issued a statement saying that South Africa had lost "a great patriot and a fearless fighter against apartheid." Although Suzman accomplished little in the way of ending apartheid while she was in office, her intense efforts clearly made an impression.

However, not all anti-apartheid South Africans viewed her as a beacon of truth in the darkness of apartheid. Many actually criticized her for her stance against violent protest and economic sanctions. Suzman was a firm believer in peaceful protest, and opposed violent means of change. She also was opposed to the idea of isolating South Africa through economic sanctions, which was a popular idea among black South Africans. Some accused her of unwittingly helping to further apartheid in this way, but she argued that destroying the South African economy would mainly hurt poor blacks, not the whites.

Nonetheless, the majority of anti-apartheid South Africans, including major activists such as Mandela, admired her courage and her willingness to fight for other people's rights no matter the cost. The awareness she raised and the gains (though small) that she made came with determination and perseverance. Although she made minimal tangible gains for the anti-apartheid movement, the courage and resilience it took to stand up for freedom in a harshly oppressive society cannot be discounted.


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Works Cited

Burns, John, and Alan Cowell. "Helen Suzman, Relentless Challenger of Apartheid System, Is Dead at 91." The New York Times. The New York Times, 2009. Web. 14 Nov. 2015.

"Liberal Light." The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 18 Jan. 2014. Web. 14 Nov. 2015.

"Helen Suzman." The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 10 Jan. 2009. Web. 14 Nov. 2015.

"Helen Suzman Foundation." Helen Suzman Foundation. Web. 14 Nov. 2015.