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Helen Suzman

(1917 - 2009)


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Helen Suzman was a South African anti-apartheid activist and politician. Suzman, birth name Helen Gavronsky, was born November 7, 1917 in Germiston to Samuel and Frieda Gavronsky, both Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants who came to South Africa to escape the restrictions imposed on Jews by Russia. She studied as an economist and statistician at Witwatersrand University. At age 20, she married Dr. Moses Suzman (d. 1994) and had two daughters with him before returning to university as a lecturer in 1944.

Suzman gave up teaching for politics, being elected to Parliament in 1953 as a member of the United Party. In 1959, amidst growing dissatisfaction with the United Party's weak stance on apartheid issues, Suzman was apart of a group of members of parliament that broke away to form the liberal Progressive Party. She represented the Houghton constituency as the party's sole member of parliament following the 1961 general election and, from 1961 to 1974, she was the sole parliamentarian unequivocally opposed to apartheid. Later, as parliamentary white opposition to apartheid grew, the Progressive Party merged with Harry Schwarz's Reform Party and became the Progressive Reform Party. It was renamed the Progressive Federal Party, and Suzman was joined in parliament by notable liberal colleagues such as Colin Eglin. She spent a total of 36 years in parliament.

Suzman was noted for her strong public criticism of the governing National Party's policies of apartheid at a time when this was atypical of white South Africans and found herself even more of an outsider because she was an English-speaking Jewish woman in a parliament dominated by Calvinist Afrikaner men. She was once accused by a minister of asking questions in parliament that embarrassed South Africa, to which she replied: "It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa; it is your answers".

Suzman visited Nelson Mandela on numerous occasions while he was in prison and was present when he signed the new constitution in 1996.

A secular Jew, who did not present herself as a representative of the Jewish community in her anti-apartheid efforts, Suzman acknowledged that she did associate her opposition to apartheid and pursuit of justice to her Jewish roots. At a time when the South African Jewish Board of Deputies adopted a policy of political non-involvement and discouraged criticism of apartheid in order to not compromise their group interests, Suzman did not waver in her individual fight against the inequities of apartheid. As she explained in an interview, "For me, for Jews to support the people who were in favor of race discrimination was the ultimate in treachery [of] the values that Jews should hold." She further detailed why it was, in her view, shameful for a Jew to support the South African National Party in its defense of apartheid, "...you know what Jews went through with persecution in Russia, with pogroms, unable to move freely, no mobility! How can you support a government which is doing exactly the same thing to the black people?"

Though she was much more interested in the world of politics than the world of religion and never felt apart of the Johannesburg Jewish community, Suzman still faced many instances of anti-Semitism throughout her career in the form of hate mail and discrimination by Nationalist parliamentarians.

For her anti-apartheid work, Suzman was awarded 27 honorary doctorates from universities around the world, was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and received countless other awards from religious and human rights organizations around the world. Queen Elizabeth II made her an honorary Dame Commander (Civil Division) of the Order of the British Empire in 1989 (she could not take the title Dame as the title is not conferred unless the recipient is a citizen of a Commonwealth realm).

Suzman received the American Jewish Committee's American Liberties Medallion in 1984 and the seventh annual humanitarian award from the South African Jewish Board of Deputies in 2007. In 2005, Cape Town's South African Jewish Museum mounted an exhibition in her honor. She was also voted #24 in the Top 100 Great South Africans.

Suzman died on 1 January 2009. Achmat Dangor, Nelson Mandela Foundation chief executive, said Suzman was a “great patriot and a fearless fighter against apartheid.”


Sources: Braude, Claudia. “Helen Suzman: Jew to the World, Not Always at Home.” The Forward. January 8, 2009; The Helen Suzman Foundation; Wikipedia

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