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Appreciation

Appreciation: Helen Suzman, a Thorn in the Side of Apartheid

With Winnie Mandela in Soweto.
With Winnie Mandela in Soweto. "You might try going to Soweto yourself one day," she told a critic. "But disguise yourself -- go as a human being." (1986 Photo -- Associated Press)
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By Glenn Frankel
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, January 2, 2009

Sometimes courage means standing alone. In 1963, when South Africa was in the process of becoming a police state, the white-ruled government proposed a law giving the authorities the power to detain for 90 days anyone deemed a threat to the state, without charge or access to a lawyer. Coming after a series of sabotage attacks by anti-government activists, the bill had the full support of every member of Parliament but one.

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Helen Suzman, who died yesterday at age 91, was the only representative of the Progressive Party in the 165-member chamber. She could have kept quiet, but instead she told her fellow lawmakers it was a bitter irony that in the name of anti-communism the country was adopting draconian laws "which are undistinguishable from the measures taken in totalitarian or communist countries."

The white men opposite her howled abuse and anti-Semitic slurs. "Go to Ghana!" shouted one. Suzman not only held her ground but demanded a division of the House. One hundred sixty-four white men in suits rose to stand on one side of the chamber; Suzman stood in solitary defiance on the other, a lone woman in a sea of empty green benches.

For 13 years, during the heyday of the system of white domination known as apartheid, Helen Suzman was the sole champion of equal rights in the South African Parliament, and for six of them the only female member. Her total parliamentary career lasted 36 years, during which she was a one-stop shopping center for anyone seeking justice from an evil system. She crusaded for the disenfranchised and the dispossessed, visited the impoverished urban slums and bleak rural regions where blacks were consigned by law, held hearings and issued impassioned reports condemning government torture and killings. And she insisted on her right as a lawmaker to inspect the state's prisons, forging a friendship based on mutual respect with Nelson Mandela and hundreds of other political prisoners that endured long past the day when majority rule finally came to South Africa.

Reviled by the government and its supporters, Suzman made a point of cultivating foreign correspondents and diplomats, who helped provide her with a modicum of protection from a regime that did not hesitate to harass, arrest or expel its opponents. I first met her in 1984 when she invited my wife and me for tea soon after I arrived as The Washington Post's Southern Africa correspondent, and I made a point of seeing her every time I visited Johannesburg. Despite the fact that I was more than 30 years younger and not her peer in any respect, she was always gracious and charming. She soaked up news and details about politicians in Washington and London, and loved to trade gossip, talk about her two children and hear about mine.

From the start she made clear she was an independent thinker and she loved a good argument. She admired Mandela because of his personal qualities of integrity and self-sacrifice, but had strong doubts about his African National Congress, which she believed was too power-hungry and heedlessly leftist. She opposed economic sanctions against the white government, arguing they would hurt poor blacks more than the regime itself. And after Mandela's political triumph in the first free election in 1994, she feared the ANC-dominated government would become just as inclined to roll back human rights as the old white-ruled one had been.

Helen redefined feisty. Her reputation for political courage became international. Typical was a two-page spread in Life magazine in 1970 that hailed her as "South Africa's lonely liberal" -- and also noted her critics dubbed her "Mother Superior" for her caustic manner. Although she would heatedly deny it, I suspect in some ways she enjoyed being a one-woman show in the 1960s and '70s and felt hemmed in once the anti-apartheid bandwagon started to gain popular support.

In her heyday, she was the apartheid regime's worst nightmare: an articulate Jewish woman with an attitude and a following abroad.

Helen Gavronsky's mother died soon after her birth in 1917 and she was raised largely by her aunt. In 1937, at age 19, she married Mosie Suzman, a prominent Johannesburg physician, and the marriage freed her from menial household duties while she raised two daughters. For eight years she taught economic history at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg, then drifted into politics. She was first elected to Parliament in 1953 from an affluent and decidedly Jewish suburb of Johannesburg. She could always count on the support of some of the wealthiest members of the liberal white business community.

Suzman was not a radical. She believed in capitalism as the economic cure for South Africa's problems. While she despised the white regime, she was not prepared to take up arms against it, nor to condone violence. Some radicals accused her of serving as window dressing -- government leaders could point to her as proof that they tolerated dissent, albeit within strictly defined limits. Still, her spirited opposition frequently got under their skin.

She saved her deepest scorn for leaders of the now-defunct National Party, which was dominated by Afrikaners, the ethnic-Dutch majority within the nation's white minority. She saw most of them as bullies or idiots or both. When one senior party leader criticized her forays into the sprawling black townships outside Johannesburg, she replied, "You might try going to Soweto yourself one day. But disguise yourself -- go as a human being."

She especially loathed former South African president P.W. Botha, calling him an "an obnoxious bully." If he were a woman, she added, "he would arrive in Parliament on a broomstick."

After retiring from Parliament in 1989, Helen was restless on the sidelines. She was one of the first to visit with Mandela at his home in Soweto in 1990 after he was released from prison. But she felt increasingly isolated politically. Mandela appointed her to his Human Rights Commission, in recognition of her role as patron saint for two generations of political prisoners, and he pleaded with her to stay in the post even after she felt she was playing no useful role.

When I last saw her eight years ago, she fretted about the rising crime rate, public corruption and lack of economic opportunities for young blacks. She echoed those same concerns in an interview with the Associated Press around the time of her 90th birthday in 2007.

Still, she always took great pride in her role as a thorn in the side of an unjust system. I interviewed her extensively for my book "Rivonia's Children," about the rise of the apartheid police state, and on that last visit she introduced me at a book talk in Johannesburg. She beamed as I read a passage about her lonely stand against the other lawmakers in Parliament. "They never knew what hit them," she told the audience.


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