Suzman’s Relationship with Mandela

by Sheila Cohen

Photos, obituaries, Suzman’s memoir, all attest to the deep respect and admiration Helen Suzman and Nelson Mandela had for each other, despite their disagreement on critical issues: the African Nationalist Congress (ANC) connection to the South African Communist Party, voting rights, sanctions and divestiture.   Suzman was never reluctant to challenge Mandela on these issues or to chide him for his sexist remarks while he was president of South Africa.  

Their long and close friendship began with a handshake through cell bars during Suzman’s first visit in 1967 to Robben Island where Mandela was serving a life sentence for treason,.  Following that visit, the horrific prison conditions began to improve.  While there were a number of visits throughout the years, authorities made it difficult for her to visit Mandela regularly during his 27-year imprisonment.   However, each Christmas she sent him classical music records which she knew he enjoyed.  She also kept close watch on Mandela’s morale after he was moved from Robben Island to a maximum-security prison.

Upon his release in 1990, Mandela gave Suzman an enormous hug.  Subsequently he publicly praised her for her concern about the poor conditions in the prisons and brutal treatment of prisoners:

 "Mrs. Suzman was one of the few, if not the only, Member of Parliament who took an interest in the plight of political prisoners.”  

"It was an odd and wonderful sight to see this courageous woman peering into our cells and strolling around our courtyard. She was the first and only woman ever to grace our cells," (from Mandela’s autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, p.).

Mandela’s respect for Suzman also comes through clearly in his forward to Suzman’s autobiography In No Uncertain Terms: A South African Memoir: “I believe this book should be read by all those interested in South Africa, as a political history and as an account of the political courage of a remarkable South African Women.”  

It is not surprising that Suzman was at Mandela’s side when as the first democratically elected president of South Africa, he signed the new South African constitution in 1996. 

The two were devoted friends up until her death.

Links and other Resources

Links to obituaries about Suzman

Links to videos about Suzman

Links to South African Music by Miriam Makeba and Hugh Masakela

Suzman biography and autobiography

cricket in the thorn tree Strangwayes-Booth, J.  (1976)  Cricket in the Thorn Tree: Helen Suzman and the Progressive Party of South Africa. London : Hutchinson.



In no uncertain TermsSuzman, H. (1993) In No Uncertain Terms: A South African Memoir. New York: Knopf