As a young adult, Helen Suzman qualified as an economist and statistician, and then opted to lecture at Witwatersrand University. She moved from teaching to politics, and was awarded a Parliamentary seat in 1953. From 1961 to 1974, she was the only parliamentarian to publically oppose apartheid: while she wasn’t popular amongst Parliament’s traditional male Afrikaners, she was the politician of the South African people, championing for their rights and equality for all. The only female parliamentarian for six years, she single-handedly fought for democracy until 1975 when seven other liberals joined in to strengthen the white opposition to apartheid. Her tenacity and zeal as a politician earned Suzman a formidable reputation of the country’s “Lioness of Parliament”.
Suzman retired from politics in 1989, a year before the African National Congress was unbanned and Nelson Mandela was released from prison. She went on to serve as president of the South African Institute of Race Relations, the Independent Electoral Commission and was a member of the statutory Human Rights Commission. She will always be remembered for her strong public criticism of apartheid, and was awarded 27 honorary doctorates from universities around the world. She was also twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, received the United Nations Award for Human Rights and the Medallion of Heroism, and 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 SA Jewish Museum who showcase her life in film, print and photographs. Her legacy lives on with the organisation she founded, The Helen Suzman Foundation, which promotes the principles of justice and equality Suzman stood for.