Parliamentarian, Human Rights Activist, sole representative of opposition party (the Progressive Party) in parliament during apartheid
Helen Suzman (nee Govronsky) was born in the South African mining town of Germiston on 7 November 1917 to Samuel and Frieda Gavronsky, both immigrants from Eastern Europe who had come to South Africa to escape the restrictions imposed on Jews by Russia.
She was brought up in a family which was financially stable, and was educated at a convent and thereafter at the University of the Witwatersrand (WITS). Helen was to become one of South Africa's most famous white parliamentarians and human rights activists.
In 1937, Suzman dropped out of university to marry Dr. Moses Suzman. Together they had two daughters, Frances, an art historian, now living in London, and Patricia, a medical specialist who lives in Boston. After her wedding, she returned to her studies, graduating with first-class passes in both her major subjects, Economics and Economic History.
Between 1941 and 1944, Suzman worked as a statistician for the War Supplies Board. In 1944, she started lecturing in Economic History at the University of Witwatersrand, a position she held until 1952, when she entered a nomination contest for a parliamentary seat in the 1953 election. She won the contest and represented the United Party (UP) in Parliament that year.
In 1959, 12 MPs, including Helen, broke away from the United Party and subsequently formed the Progressive Party, with an openly liberal programme of extending rights to all South Africans with a qualified franchise. In the general election of 1961, the Progressives were virtually wiped out, and only Helen retained her seat.
As the sole voice of South Africa’s oppressed, Suzman became known for her strong public criticism of the governing National Party's policies of apartheid at a time when this was unusual amongst white people. She found herself even more of an outsider, as she was an English-speaking Jewish woman in a parliament dominated by male Afrikaners.
In 1974, six colleagues joined Helen in Parliament and the Progressive Party was renamed the Progressive Federal Party. As a Member of Parliament, she was able to visit prisons, among them Robben Island, where she inspected the living conditions of prisoners and met Nelson Mandela.
Helen never shirked from raising unpopular issues. Visiting political prisoners was only one example; opposing capital punishment and arguing against the banning of the Communist Party and the banning and other restrictions imposed on individuals and organisations were others. In 1975, she tackled gender discrimination, especially discrimination against Black women.
Suzman was a Member of Parliament (MP) for 36 years. She retired from Parliament in 1989, but remained actively involved in South African politics. She served as the president of the South African Institute of Race Relations from 1991 to 1993, and served on the Independent Electoral Commission that oversaw the first democratic elections in 1994.
For several years thereafter, Suzman was a member of the statutory Human Rights Commission – clashing on many occasions with its then chairman Dr Barney Pityana. Suzman was at Mandela’s side when he signed the new constitution in 1996, and remained a much-favored speaker. She frequently commented on issues in letters to the press.
The University of Oxford, the University of Cambridge and Harvard University (to name a few) have awarded her honorary doctorates for her anti-apartheid stance. Her struggle against apartheid also won her the United Nations Human Rights Award in 1978 and the Medallion of Heroism in 1980. She was nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize twice.
In 1993, she published her autobiography, In No Uncertain Terms: A South African Memoir, inspiring her country and the world to recognize the injustices of the South African government. She also established the Helen Suzman Foundation to promote liberal democracy in South Africa.
On 7 November 2007, the nation celebrated Suzman’s 90th birthday. She died peacefully in her sleep on 1 January 2009 at the age of 91.
• Morris, M. (2004) Every Step of the Way: The Journey to Freedom in South Africa. HSRC Press: Cape Town, pp.178-179; 193.
• South African Democracy Education Trust (SADET) (2006) The Road to Democracy in South Africa. Vol.2 [1970-1980]. Pretoria, p. 848
• The Helen Suzman Foundation: About Helen Suzman [online] Available at: www.hsf.org.za [Accessed on 24 July 2009]
Donate and Make African History Matter
South African History Online is a non profit organisation. We depend on public support to build our website into the most comprehensive educational resource and encyclopaedia on African history.
Your support will help us to build and maintain partnerships with educational institutions in order to strengthen teaching, research and free access to our content.