Helen Suzman; White Lawmaker Fought Apartheid in South Africa

For 13 years, Helen Suzman was the sole opposition lawmaker in parliament, consistently opposing the introduction of racist legislation by the government.
For 13 years, Helen Suzman was the sole opposition lawmaker in parliament, consistently opposing the introduction of racist legislation by the government. (1975 Photo From Hulton Archive -- Getty Images)
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By Clare Nullis
Associated Press
Friday, January 2, 2009

CAPE TOWN, South Africa -- South African anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman, 91, who won international acclaim as one of the few white lawmakers to fight against the injustices of racist rule, died Jan. 1 at her home in Johannesburg. No cause of death was reported.

Mrs. Suzman, twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, fought a long and lonely battle in the South African parliament against government repression of the country's black majority and the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela.

Nelson Mandela Foundation chief executive Achmat Dangor called her a "great patriot and a fearless fighter against apartheid."

For 13 years, Mrs. Suzman was the sole opposition lawmaker in parliament, raising her voice time after time against the introduction of racist legislation by the National Party government.

After her retirement from parliament in 1989, she served on a variety of public bodies, including the Independent Electoral Commission, which oversaw the country's first multiracial elections in 1994.

She was at Mandela's side when he signed the new constitution in 1996 as South Africa's first black president. A year later, Mandela awarded her a special gold medal in honor of her contributions.

"It is a courage born of the yearning for freedom; of hatred of oppression, injustice and inequity whether the victim be oneself or another; a fortitude that draws its strength from the conviction that no person can be free while others are unfree," Mandela said at the time.

Mrs. Suzman had first visited Mandela in prison on Robben Island in 1967, when she heard his grievances about prison conditions.

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

She was born in the mining town of Germiston, east of Johannesburg, to Lithuanian-Jewish parents who had fled anti-Semitism. Her childhood was the charmed one of most whites -- tennis, swimming lessons and private schooling.

When she entered college, she began to speak out against the conditions under which black people were forced to live, especially the dreaded pass system that restricted their movement. In 1953, she was elected to parliament for Gen. Jan Smuts's United Party. A few years later, she helped formed the liberal democratic Progressive Party, a later reincarnation of which is the official opposition. A snap election in 1961 devastated the party, leaving Mrs. Suzman on her own until 1974. She kept her seat until retiring in 1989 at the age of 72.

She was especially jubilant about the 1986 abolition of the pass laws as part of the slow and uneven unraveling of apartheid legislation and had just one regret about leaving parliament: "That I didn't stay on one extra year to watch all the bills that I'd opposed being repealed."

Mrs. Suzman's relationship with former president P.W. Botha, one of the most ruthless enforcers of apartheid laws, was one of mutual loathing. She described him as "an obnoxious bully" and said that if he were female, "he would arrive in Parliament on a broomstick," according to the Helen Suzman Foundation Web site.

In addition to her 27 honorary doctorates and her 1989 title as Dame of the British Empire -- a rare honor for a foreigner -- she said she was especially proud of being declared "Enemy of the State" by Zimbabwe's autocratic president, Robert Mugabe, in 2001.

Suzman prided herself for reading four newspapers every morning and championing causes close to her heart -- including the decriminalization of marijuana.

Associated Press writer Celean Jacobson in Johannesburg contributed to this report.

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