Helen Suzman, DCE

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Helen Suzman (Gavronsky), DCE

Birthdate: (91)
Birthplace: Germiston, East Rand, Gauteng, South Africa
Death: January 1, 2009 (91)
South Africa
Immediate Family:

Daughter of Samuel Gavronsky and Frieda Gavronsky
Wife of Moses Meyer Suzman, Dr
Mother of <private> Jowell (Suzman) and <private> Suzman
Sister of Gertrude Posel

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Immediate Family

About Helen Suzman, DCE

Suzman, a lifelong citizen of South Africa, was born as Helen Gavronsky in 1917 to Samuel and Frieda Gavronsky, Jewish Lithuanian immigrants.[1][2]

Helen Suzman matriculated in 1933 from Parktown Convent, Johannesburg. She studied as an economist and statistician at Witwatersrand University. At age 19, she married Dr Moses Suzman (died 1994), who was considerably older than she was; the couple had two daughters. She returned to university lecturing in 1944, later giving up her teaching vocation to enter politics. She was elected to the House of Assembly in 1953 as a member of the United Party for the Houghton constituency in Johannesburg.

Suzman and eleven other liberal members of the United Party broke away to form the Progressive Party in 1959. At the 1961 general election all the other Progressive MPs lost their seats, leaving Suzman as the sole parliamentarian unequivocally opposed to apartheid for thirteen years from 1961 to 1974.[3] She was often harassed by the police and her phone was tapped by them. She had a special technique for dealing with eavesdropping, which was to blow a whistle into the mouthpiece of the phone.[4]

An eloquent public speaker with a sharp and witty manner, 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. She 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".[5]

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.[6] She visited Nelson Mandela on numerous occasions while he was in prison, and was present when he signed the new constitution in 1996.[7]

Suzman was awarded 27 honorary doctorates from universities around the world, was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize[8] 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.[9] She was voted #24 in the Top 100 Great South Africans TV series.

See also:

List of South Africans List of Jews from Sub-Saharan Africa Progressive Party (South Africa) Janet Suzman, her niece and South African actress and director.

In No Uncertain Terms: Memoirs

An intimate view of a period of injustice and violence, courage, progress, and change, this is a poignant and passionate look at a woman of rare character and purpose. ... Google Books Published: 1993 Author: Helen Suzman

Obituary Stanley Uys theguardian.com, Friday 2 January 2009 03.25 AEST

Helen Suzman, who has died aged 91, single-handedly carried the anti-racism banner in South Africa's apartheid parliament, her star the brightest in the liberal firmament.

She was elected in 1953 and her solitary crusade lasted 13 years from 1961 to 1974. After that, the electoral tide took a sudden, fortunate turn, and she was joined by seven Progressive Federal party colleagues. She continued as an MP until 1989, standing down amid accolades from all over the world.

That was the year in which President FW de Klerk lifted the ban on liberation movements and opened the prison gates to release, among others, Nelson Mandela. After that, the black liberation movement brought other heroes on to the stage – and, in the process, displaced the liberals. That is why Helen's "magnificent battle against apartheid", as Mandela described it, belonged to an earlier era.

Born Helen Gavronsky in the Witwatersrand town of Germiston, of Lithuanian immigrant parents, she was sent to Parktown convent school where, she says, she was taught by rote by the nuns, which endowed her with a very good memory. The nuns also taught their pupils to be bad losers, which Helen thought was excellent training for politics.

Helen matriculated when she was 16, started and abandoned a bachelor of commerce course at Witwatersrand University and married a doctor, Mosie Suzman, when she was 19 (and he was 33). She returned to Wits to complete her degree, became a statistician at the War Supplies Board until 1944, and in 1945 was appointed a tutor and then lecturer in economic history at Wits, a post she held until she became an MP in 1953.

Helen became a United party MP (Jan Smuts's old party) five years after the National party had been voted into office in 1948. Six years after her election, in 1959, she and 10 of her colleagues, disgusted by the UP's refusal to vote for more land grants to blacks, resigned and formed the Progressive party, later to become the Progressive Federal party.

In the 1961 general election – the year in which South Africa become a republic – the Progressives were almost wiped out, except for Helen, who won her seat in the Johannesburg suburb of Houghton. This marked the beginning of her 13 lonely years as a liberal MP (for six years of them the only woman among 165 male, very chauvinist MPs).

It was during these years that she built her reputation. She possessed four qualities in particular. Firstly, she was completely fearless, confronted though she was by some of the most menacing and odious politicians of any parliament ever. Secondly, she seemed to have more energy than anyone else - she often attributed her physical health to the fact that she never drank wine, only whisky (although she missed Harold Macmillan's "wind of change" speech in the South African parliament in 1960 because she had infectious hepatitis).

Thirdly, Helen had an unfailing sense of humour, sometimes lovely and light, at other times cutting and caustic. Fourthly, she pursued with extraordinary tenacity the principle that should be inscribed on her tombstone - "let right be done".

She seemed to regard the ministers with whom she fought as denizens of some primeval forest. Without this humour, she could never have survived. She described how government MPs used to bleat "Mau Mau" when she stood up, or shout "go back to Moscow/Ghana/Israel". In her autobiography, In No Uncertain Terms, she notes, whimsically: "I came from none of them."

Helen's reputation was built not on lofty thoughts and resounding speeches, but on hard work. One by one, as they came off the assembly line, she shredded the bills that removed civil liberties. One by one, she tore her parliamentary colleagues apart for their callousness, ignorance and ineptitude. Day after day, she would meet the poor, either in her office, or more often in their own shacks, listening to their tales of sorrow and sadness, of hurt and hatred.

With typical chutzpah, she would accost ministers in the parliamentary lobby or beard police officers in their dens, and demand to know why some nameless person of colour was being deprived of his or her rights.

Perhaps the most rewarding visit Helen ever made outside parliament was to Robben Island to see Mandela and the other prisoners – rewarding because it signalled to the prisoners that they were not forgotten.

Mandela says he came to know Helen "very well" during her visits, which continued after he was transferred to Pollsmoor prison on the mainland. As the lone Progressive MP Helen had decided, quite clinically, to "use parliament to expose the tragic effect" of apartheid laws. She used to quote Theodore Roosevelt: "I did what I could, where I was, with what I had."

After standing down as an MP, she left it to others to serve as the watchdogs over abuse of power in the "new" South Africa that followed the fall of apartheid. Many liberals, guilt-stricken over the "slideaway" of the 1980s, when they believed they failed to speak out adequately against the excesses of the liberation movement, redoubled their efforts to prevent it from happening again, distancing themselves from the so-called ANC groupies.

Predictably, this did not endear them to the ANC. Leading the no-slideaway liberals was the South African Institute of Race Relations (of which Helen was once president). The Helen Suzman Foundation itself has assumed what it saw as the historic mantle of liberalism to criticise.

The accolades were endless – honorary doctorates, two nominations for the Nobel peace prize, a damehood conferred on her by the Queen (although because she was not a British subject, she was not entitled to be called Dame Helen).

Everyone knew the name Helen Suzman - with one exception. She used to tell the tale that after returning from a trip to Australia in 1974 (when she was at the height of her fame), she stopped for a few days in Mauritius, where she had a "really torrid time" at the university, with "screaming students banging on their desks" and yelling "racist go home". At breakfast one morning, she was directed to a table occupied by white South Africans. As she sat down, there was a hush, and Helen thought she had been recognised.

"An aggressive female voice asked: 'Aren't you Helen Gavronsky from Germiston. I played hockey against you at school. What have you been doing since then?'"

Mosie died in 1994, and Helen is survived by two daughters, Frances, an art historian who lives in London, and Patricia, a doctor, who lives in Boston.

Helen Suzman, politician and civil rights activist, born 7 November 1917; died 1 January 2009


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Helen Suzman, DCE's Timeline

November 7, 1917
Germiston, East Rand, Gauteng, South Africa
January 1, 2009
Age 91
South Africa