Helen Suzman

Helen Suzman was born in South Africa in 1917 to Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants. She spent 36 years in Parliament before retiring in 1989. She dedicated her political life to opposing the National Party’s white-privilege policies and demanding civil rights for all South Africans.

Did you know?

Suzman once suggested that apartheid-era president PW Botha visit a black township, but that he should do so only if he was 'heavily disguised as a human being'.

Helen Suzman was an economist and statistician who became one of the greatest anti-apartheid voices in the South African Parliament. Her tenacity and eloquence earned her the moniker, 'Lioness of Parliament'.

A fiery and charismatic speaker, she is remembered for her clever retorts. Once, when an apartheid-era National Party minister accused her of asking parliamentary questions that embarrassed South Africa, she replied: 'It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa; it is your answers.'

Suzman lectured at the University of the Witwatersrand before entering politics. In 1953 she represented the United Party in Parliament. In 1959 she was one of 12 people to break away from the United Party and form the Progressive Party. Two years later, the Progressive Party lost all its seats in Parliament, except for Suzman's.

For 13 years Suzman stood alone in Parliament in opposition to apartheid. But, as opposition to apartheid grew, so too did the liberal voices in Parliament. The Progressive Party merged with the Reform Party, becoming the Progressive Reform Party, which later became the Progressive Federal Party (PFP).

Colin Eglin, another notable anti-apartheid politician, joined Suzman on the back benches, and over the years, as opposition to apartheid increased, so too did the number of PFP parliamentarians.

Suzman, an outspoken, English-speaking Jewish woman, was not popular in Parliament, which was the domain of white Christian male Afrikaners. To the rest of the country, and in many parts of the world, she represented the voice of the majority of South Africans.

Suzman retired from politics in 1989, a year before the African National Congress was unbanned and Nelson Mandela released from prison. She went on to serve as president of the South African Institute of Race Relations, served on the Independent Electoral Commission and was a member of the Human Rights Commission.

She and Nelson Mandela held each other in high esteem and she visited him on Robben Island a number of times while he was incarcerated.

Over the years she was awarded 27 honorary doctorates from universities around the world, was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and received the United Nations Award for Human Rights and the Medallion of Heroism. Queen Elizabeth II made her an honorary Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire.

Helen Suzman died on 1 January 2009 at the age of 91. Her contribution to South Africa’s history was recognised by the South African Jewish Museum, which showcased her life in film, print and photographs. Her legacy lives on through the Helen Suzman Foundation, which promotes the principles of justice and equality that Suzman stood for.