Suzman, Helen (1917—)

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Suzman, Helen (1917—)

South African parliamentary opponent of apartheid who championed human rights and the rule of law. Pronunciation: Sooz-man. Born Helen Gavronsky on November 7, 1917, in Germiston, South Africa; daughter of Samuel Gavronsky (a self-made businessman) and Frieda (David) Gavronsky; educated at St. George's School, Parktown Convent, and University of the Witwatersrand (B.Commerce, 1941); married Moses Meyer (Mosie) Suzman (a physician), on August 13, 1937; children: Frances Suzman; Patricia Suzman.

Elected to South African Parliament (March 1953); retired from Parliament (June 1989), age 71.


(memoirs) In No Uncertain Terms (Jonathan Ball, 1993).

Helen Suzman was born in a small mining town ten miles southeast of Johannesburg, in South Africa's Transvaal, on November 7, 1917, the day of the Russian Revolution. Her father had emigrated to South Africa from a shtetl (village) on the border of Lithuania and Latvia. She was educated at non-Jewish schools in Johannesburg, to which the family moved, but remained a member of the Jewish community. Her major subjects at the University of the Witwatersrand were economics and economic history, and after the birth of her daughters, she agreed to return to the University to teach in its economic history department, first as a tutor and then as a temporary lecturer.

Her study of economic history, and especially of the implications of the country's migrant labor system, on which she collected material which was submitted to the government-appointed Native Laws Commission by the South African Institute of Race Relations, encouraged her to make politics her career, to help bring about a more just economic and political order.

After the shocking defeat of the United Party (UP) in the 1948 general election, Suzman became increasingly active in organizing for the party in northern Johannesburg and in its Women's Council. She first came to public attention in 1952 as a leading figure in Women's Action, an organization to mobilize women against the Nationalist government. Later that year, she agreed, somewhat reluctantly, given her family responsibilities and job, to stand for nomination for the parliamentary seat of Houghton, a safe UP constituency which embraced the most prosperous of Johannesburg's northern suburbs. She won the nomination, in part because of her honesty in saying that she did not know the answer to certain questions put to her, and in the 1953 general election was returned as a member of the House of Assembly.

Suzman was member of Parliament (MP) for Houghton from 1953 to 1989. As Parliament met in Cape Town, she had to stay there for up to six months each year, though her home remained in Hyde Park, Johannesburg. As an opposition member, she believed her main role was to hold the government to account. In the particular circumstances of South Africa at that time, she used the platform which Parliament provided to speak out against the horrors of apartheid, to draw public attention to those horrors, and to try to help its victims. She also campaigned on behalf of women's rights: her first speech in Parliament, where for six years she was the only woman among 166 MPs, was in the debate on the Matrimonial Affairs Bill, an early milestone on the road to legal equality for women. She continued to fight for such equality, making major contributions in Parliament in 1975, 1984, and 1988, and pleading for the participation of more women at the first meeting of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA) in 1991.

In her early years in Parliament, this small, attractive, vivacious woman joined the small group of UP MPs who sought to wean the party away from support for social and political segregation. Like others on the liberal wing of the party, she found herself waging constant battles against conservatives in the party caucus. The UP opposed separate education for Africans, the removal of Africans from the western areas of Johannesburg, and the further entrenchment of the policy of reserving certain jobs for whites, but was often hesitant to criticize the National Party (NP) government. Suzman's first act of defiance came when the party in 1953 initially supported the Separate Amenities Bill, which provided for racial segregation in public places. After the UP lost the 1958 general election, she and other liberal MPs were blamed for the party's defeat, and the new leader of the party aligned himself with its conservative majority.

At the 1959 party congress in Bloemfontein, Suzman was one of the group of MPs who resigned from the UP in disgust when it voted against the grant of more land to Africans. This group then formed a new party, the Progressive Party (PP), which opposed racial segregation root and branch and stood for a democratic political order, though in its early years one which included the old idea of a qualified color-blind franchise. In those years, it gained a small black membership, but because of legislation passed in 1968 it was forced to become a whites-only party. To those who called upon it then to dissolve itself, it argued that it should continue to work for nonracialism even if it could have no black members.

In 1959, the PP MPs immediately came under pressure to resign their seats and fight elections for the new party. It was clear, however, that few if any would win such elections, and so they all agreed not to resign. Suzman found herself one of an initial 12 members of the new party in Parliament. When a general election was fought in 1961, she was the only one to be returned to Parliament, thanks to a superb election campaign in her Houghton constituency. Her majority was only 564 votes. In the further general elections of 1966 and 1970, she was also the only member of her party to be returned. For 13 years, she was the only Progressive MP.

These were Suzman's most testing and finest years. At this time, it came to be said of her that she was in effect the entire parliamentary opposition, for the feeble UP offered little or no resistance as many key apartheid laws were enacted, and Suzman was left to battle alone. A journalist, asked in the mid-1960s for proof that South Africa was not a police state, replied that the proof was the English-language press and Helen Suzman.

In Parliament, she was called a "communist" and "saboteur" and not infrequently subjected to anti-Semitic and sexist remarks. Only someone as tough as she was could have continued and could have won the respect even of some of her bitterest opponents. In her memoirs, she calls her chief enemies, the three prime ministers H.F. Verwoerd, John Vorster and P.W. Botha, "as nasty a trio as you could encounter in your worst nightmares." She was in the House of Assembly when Verwoerd was stabbed to death by a parliamentary messenger in 1966; in a fit of rage, P.W. Botha, then a minister, turned on her and blamed her for the assassination. She continued to infuriate Botha, who in 1972 said she represented "all those people who break laws and want to banish order."

Whenever I am downhearted and depressed at the course of events in South Africa, I have only to think of Helen Suzman and of all she has done and endured and achieved to feel a resurgence of confidence, determination and faith.

—Harry Oppenheimer

There was a certain irony in the fact that a regime so authoritarian as the NP had enough respect for the parliamentary system that it allowed Suzman to oppose to the extent that she did. Perhaps being a woman helped her sometimes to get her way, though she was to say that she did not think it did. But above all it was her sheer tenacity and determination, along with her patent integrity and honesty, which enabled her to achieve so much. Her spirit was caught in the title she chose for the memoirs she wrote in her retirement: In No Uncertain Terms.

As Parliament in the worst years of apartheid became little more than a rubber stamp for the government, Suzman used the tradition of question time to expose as much as she could of what the government was doing. During each session of Parliament, she asked on average about 200 questions, far more than anyone else. In her hundreds of speeches, always incisive and clear, her special targets were the injustices of migrant labor, forced removals, and the Group Areas Act.

Her training in economics gave her an excellent grasp of fiscal issues. No one in Parliament argued more forcefully that the continuation of apartheid was incompatible with economic growth. No one argued more ably that apartheid was not only a crime but also an economic blunder. She never had any sympathy for the socialist solutions advanced by extra-parliamentary anti-apartheid groups on the extreme left: she continued to believe in the merits of a market-driven economy, and enjoyed close and cordial relations with Harry Oppenheimer of the Anglo American Corporation and other representatives of big business.

Though Suzman never stopped an apartheid act from being enacted, for decades her presence in Parliament and her voice of protest represented a spark of hope amid darkness for many people. That she continued to express liberal views and defend liberal values from the platform of Parliament helped keep those values alive, until they revived as apartheid began to fall apart.

Suzman enjoyed a close relationship with her constituents, and Houghton once again became a safe seat as her electorate increasingly recognized the value of the role she was playing. After every parliamentary session, she presented a full report back on her work and an assessment of the current scene. But she also saw herself as having a wider constituency, embracing the great majority who because of apartheid were not represented in Parliament, and she championed human rights outside as well as inside the walls of Parliament.

At the time of the 1960 post-Sharpeville state of emergency, she paid her first visit to a jail to see how political prisoners were being treated, and after that she made such visits to jails whenever she could. She was highly critical of the "90 day" detention law which Vorster pushed through Parliament in the early 1960s. Towards the end of that decade, she visited some of the areas from which Africans were being forcibly removed, because of the government's influx control and Bantustan policies, then raised the issue in Parliament. In 1967, she made the first of her visits to the political prisoners on Robben Island, a visit which led directly to an improvement in conditions in the prison. She met Nelson Mandela on average once every four years after that, and continued to press for his release from jail. Suzman also visited his wife three times when Winnie Madikizela-Mandela was banished to the Orange Free State.

In September 1977, Suzman attended the funeral of Steve Biko of the Black Consciousness movement, and the following March was asked to speak at the funeral of Robert Sobukwe of the Pan Africanist Congress. In attending these memorial services, she expressed her solidarity with those struggling against apartheid and her protest against the measures taken by the government to silence leaders of the black majority. She was a strong opponent of the new tricameral constitution of 1983, primarily because it excluded the African majority.

It was not until the 1974 general election that she was once again joined in Parliament by other Progressives, when six others were elected, to her immense satisfaction. With colleagues to help her, Suzman took a less prominent role. Not a strategist, and never officially leader of her party, she worked well as part of a team and never sought the leadership, though she remained the best-known and most revered Progressive. In 1975, her party merged with a break-away from the UP and became the Progressive Reform Party, later the Progressive Federal Party (PFP). In 1977, it replaced the UP as the official (largest) opposition.

Because she believed that Parliament provided an important platform for attacking government policy, she found it difficult to forgive the brilliant Frederick van Zyl Slabbert, the PFP leader, when in February 1986 he suddenly decided to resign from Parliament and the party. The following year the far-right Conservative Party took over as the official opposition. Shortly before Suzman retired from Parliament, there was yet another merger, when the Progressives were absorbed in a new Democratic Party (DP). Initially, she had mixed feelings about the new party, for she did not like the way the merger took place, but after her retirement she continued to work for the DP and served on its delegation to CODESA, the multiparty negotiating forum, in December 1991.

From the late 1970s, measures began to be passed for which she had long campaigned, including the lifting of restrictions on African trade unions in 1979; the abolition of the pass laws in 1986; and the improvement of prison conditions. And gradually she won praise even from Nationalists for her parliamentary skills, her debating ability and witty repartee across the floor of the House, and for advocating policies which they eventually took over. After her retirement, her portrait was hung in the corridors of Parliament, the only non-Cabinet minister to be so honored. The eminent historian Phyllis Lewsen has with justice called her South Africa's greatest parliamentarian.

A woman of great political courage, Helen Suzman stuck to what she believed. Having battled

apartheid ideologues for so long, in the 1980s she found herself opposed from a different quarter, when Archbishop Desmond Tutu and many Africans condemned her opposition to sanctions. She insisted on taking a firm stand against economic sanctions and divestment from South Africa, arguing that such measures would not help those they were intended to help. Instead, they would increase unemployment and poverty and destroy the economy. By pulling out of the country, American business would, she said, lose its positive influence. Nor did she believe that such measures would help end apartheid. In the event, however, while the economy was probably damaged less than she feared, economic measures, and in particular financial sanctions, did play a major role in forcing the government to change course at the end of the 1980s.

While vilified by the government in South Africa, she began to receive high honors abroad for her fight for human dignity and civil rights in her country. In June 1973, Oxford University made her a honorary doctor of civil laws, and many other universities granted her similar honors. In 1980, she received the Medal of Honor from the mayor of New York City, and in 1983 an award by the International League of Human Rights. Of South Africans of this century, only General Jan Smuts, Archbishop Tutu, and Nelson Mandela were more honored internationally. Yet she remained modest about her achievements and was happy to be known simply as "Helen."

Her critics on the left said that by serving in Parliament she helped legitimize the system, and some called on her and other Progressives to walk out. She was even on occasion lumped with other whites as part of the white minority oppressive regime. Her totally convincing reply was that she used the parliamentary process to expose the injustices of apartheid and to try to keep alive democratic values. Nelson Mandela, in a foreword for her memoirs, said that her role in opposing apartheid had to be applauded.

Well groomed and elegant, and a sparking conversationalist, Helen Suzman remained active in public life in retirement. She had often lectured abroad about her country, and she continued to do this. She collected more awards—perhaps most notably, she was invested as a Dame of the British Empire by Queen Elizabeth II in October 1989, the only foreign citizen to be so honored. Suzman served as president of the Institute of Race Relations from 1990, her memoirs were published to considerable acclaim in 1993, and at the end of that year she was appointed a member of the vitally important Independent Electoral Commission, which Parliament set up to oversee the April 1994 general election and ensure that it was free and fair.


Lee, R., ed. Values Alive: A Tribute to Helen Suzman. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, n.d. [1990].

Lewsen, P., ed. Helen Suzman: The Solo Years. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball and A.D. Donker, 1991.

Strangewayes-Booth, J. A Cricket in the Thorn Tree: Helen Suzman and the Progressive Party. Johannesburg: Hutchinson, 1976.

Suzman, Helen. In No Uncertain Terms. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball, 1993.

suggested reading:

Slabbert, F. van Zyl. The Last White Parliament. Johannesburg: Jonathan Ball and Hans Strydom, 1985.

Swart, R. Progressive Odyssey. Cape Town: Human and Rousseau, 1991.


Suzman papers are in the University of the Witwatersrand Library, Johannesburg.

Christopher Saunders , Associate Professor in History, University of Cape Town, Cape Town, South Africa