This Week in History


Helen Suzman eulogized as indefatigable foe of apartheid

January 4, 2009
Helen Suzman
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Helen Suzman

When Helen Suzman was buried on this day in Johannesburg, the African National Congress hailed her as a woman who became “a thorn in the flesh of apartheid by openly criticizing segregation of Blacks by a Whites-only apartheid system.”

Hers was often a lonely voice. The daughter of a Lithuanian immigrant turned successful businessman, she was the only Progressive Party representative in the all-white South African Parliament for 13 years and the only female parliamentarian for six years.  She opposed the worldwide movement to undermine South Africa’s system of segregation with economic sanctions and divestiture of investment in South Africa’s economy.  She urged peaceful protest instead, insisting that sanctions would hurt the country’s poor blacks more than whites.  She believed deeply in the importance of keeping the hopes of eventual democracy alive by exposing the evils of the apartheid system.

She challenged each piece of discriminatory legislation and crippling security laws, becoming a voice for millions of voiceless South Africans.  She refused to be indifferent to the injustice around her, stating, "I stand for simple justice, equal opportunity and human rights: the indispensable elements in a democratic society—and well worth fighting for."

She also used her parliamentary immunity to go to places others could not, not only the black townships like Soweto, but also the notorious Robbens Island, where she visited Nelson Mandela frequently during his decades of imprisonment.  When the day finally came that he was sworn in as the country’s first post-apartheid president, Helen Suzman would be at his side.

A government minister once accused her of embarrassing South Africa with her parliamentary questions; her reply says everything about her: “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa; it is your answers.”

See also: “Helen Suzman,” in Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia; “Remembering Helen Suzman,” post on Jewesses With Attitude blog.

Sources: “Helen Suzman, Relentless Challenger of Apartheid System, Is Dead at 91,” New York Times; Helen Suzman Foundation.

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