Helen Suzman in South African History

Helen Suzman was one of the most important figures in the white opposition to apartheid in South Africa.  From 1960 to 1974, Suzman was the sole voice of opposition regularly heard throughout South Africa and around the world.  She was not alone in opposing apartheid but no one else had her platform. She fought injustice her whole life but in the years after 1976, her brave stance against racial oppression became eclipsed by the efforts of non-whites in South Africa and world-wide economic sanctions against the racist state. Her focus on parliamentary work, her passionate adherence to the principles of liberalism and multiracialism, and her refusal to keep quiet were part of what became a broad based opposition movement to racial injustice that encompassed labor strikes, boycotts, riots and armed struggle. Suzman’s relationship with the principle anti-apartheid organization, the African National Congress, was often strained.  Nevertheless, from her election to parliament in 1953 through 1989 when she retired from parliament but not from public life she challenged injustice at every step and helped in ways small and large to intercede with the government to ease the suffering of countless militants and regular folks caught up in the inhuman apartheid laws and regulations.

Helen Gavronsky was born near Johannesburg, South Africa, on the same day as the outbreak of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia. Her father was an immigrant from Lithuania who, with his brother, became a successful businessman. She lived a life of privilege.  Though she was Jewish, she attended Catholic high school and went to one of South Africa’s elite universities, Witwatersrand. After 3 years and a trip to Europe she dropped out and at 19 married a well-respected doctor, Moses Suzman. With World War Two and the birth of her two daughters, Helen still found time to work for the war effort, returned to complete her degree, and at war’s end, was offered a tutorship (later a lectureship) in Economic History at Witwatersrand.

She was appalled at the election of the so-called “purified” or hestigte Nationalist Party in 1948 dedicated to deepening racial separation and injustice.  She immediately threw herself into political work and was persuaded to stand for parliament in time for the 1953 election.She served for 36 years. Suzman became extremely skilled in using the opportunities presented by her parliamentary immunity to speak her mind, ask penetrating questions of ministers, skewer them in debate, and work for the oppressed majority of the country’s population through speeches, private members’ motions, and intervention with government departments. The major pieces of legislation that made up the underpinnings of apartheid were mainly passed before she entered parliament and there had been a long history of racial discrimination and legal oppression but Helen battled each and every attempt to refine and deepen the system. Hers was also a prominent and effective voice on economic policy, women’s rights, prisons, and the rule of law. Suzman became an international figure representing both stalwart opposition to racial oppression and that not all South African whites agreed with their government.

As she noted in her annual Report Back to her constituents, she was not much of a constituency MP.  She was unable to concentrate on purely local issues and individual problems since she was for so long the only voice of opposition and therefore had to take a national role and to advocate for all the voiceless South Africans (Until 1984 only whites had a parliamentary vote and even then blacks were completely excluded). She did battle with successive South African Prime Ministers, cabinet members and Nationalist MPs.  Despite consistent abuse which included sexism and anti-semitism as well consistent calls to go back to Russia or Ghana or just to leave the country for anywhere, Suzman gave as good as she got and gained grudging admiration from many of her opponents. Suzman knew all of the key people involved in challenging and upholding apartheid .

suzman and winnieBy the mid-1960s, Suzman embarked on the valuable campaign to alleviate the worst sufferings of prisoners, both common criminals and political prisoners. She championed the cause of Bram Fischer, head of the South African Communist Party, whose incarceration took place in terrible conditions amid official neglect.  In 1967, she was able to make her first visit to Nelson Mandela on Robben Island, the notorious prison off the coast of Cape Town.  There she met other members of the African National Congress (ANC) leadership convicted in the Rivonia Trials of 1964; Robert Sobukwe, the founder of the Pan African Congress (PAC); and Toivo ja Toivo, founder of the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO). In the 1970s she advocated for Breyten Breytenbach and Athol Fugard, two of South Africa’s literary lions jailed for their opposition to apartheid. From then through the 1980s Suzman worked hard to assist people banned from their homes and family, including Winnie Mandela; the thousands of black Africans forced into so-called ‘bantustans” and out of squatter camps at gunpoint; and people from other racial groups denied property rights and forced to live in racially designated areas.

Internationally, Suzman received recognition from figures as diverse as Robert F. Kennedy and Margaret Thatcher. She served to inspire countless unknown people around the world in her lonely but justified championship of civil and human rights. Honorary degrees from Oxford, Harvard, Columbia and other great world universities attested to her regard.  She was awarded the United Nations Civil Rights Award and was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.

After 1994 and the election of the ANC to government in the first truly multiracial elections, Suzman continued to point out what she considered arbitrary decision-making or abuse of power. She served on the Independent Electoral Commission and as President of the South African Institute of Race Relations. In her last years she flayed Mandela’s successor as South African President, Thabo Mbeki, for his “flaccidness” in dealing with the HIV/AIDS epidemic and on Zimbabwe.

Helen Suzman died at the age of 91 on New Year’s Day, 2009. Tributes poured in from all sides in South Africa and around the world .


Select Further Reading (All Available at Memorial Library, SUNY Cortland)
Davenport, Rodney and Christopher Saunders. South Africa: A Modern History. Fifth Edition. New York: St. Martin’s, 2000.
Davis, R. Hunt Jr.(ed.)  Apartheid Unravels. Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1991.
Dubow, Saul. Racial Segregation and the Origins of Apartheid in South Africa, 1916-36. Basingstoke & London: Macmillan, 1989.
Suzman, Helen. In No Uncertain Terms. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1993.
Western, John. Outcast Capetown. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996.
Worden, Nigel. The Making of Modern South Africa.Second Edition. Oxford, UK & Cambridge, MA: Blackwell, 1995.

http://www.hsf.org.za/helen-suzman-tribute   Helen Suzman Foundation
http://www.whoswhosa.co.za/Pages/profilefull.aspx?IndID=3458  Who’s Who in South Africa
http://www.jewishvirtuallibrary.org/jsource/biography/Suzman.html  Jewish Virtual Library
http://www.tws-net.com/Content/Public/Articles/000/000/016/021zkqln.asp  The Weekly Standard
http://www.sahistory.org.za/pages/people/bios/suzman-h.htm  South African History