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Jan 2nd, 2009

South African Anti-Apartheid Activist Helen Suzman Dies at 91

One of few white lawmakers to battle apartheid

Helen Suzman with Nelson Mandela in February 1990
(Photo credit: John Parkin / AP file)

The Associated Press
January 1, 2009

CAPE TOWN, South Africa — South African anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman, who was one of the few white lawmakers to fight against the injustices of racist rule, died Thursday. She was 91.

Suzman fought a long and lonely battle in the South African parliament against government repression of the country’s black majority. She first visited Nelson Mandela, leader of the then-banned African National Congress, in prison in 1967 at the start of a long friendship.

Nelson Mandela Foundation chief executive Achmat Dangor said Suzman was a “great patriot and a fearless fighter against apartheid.”

Suzman’s daughter, Frances Jowell, said Suzman died peacefully at her Johannesburg home on New Year’s Day. Jowell told the South African Press Association that there would be a private funeral this weekend and a public memorial service in February.

For 13 years, Helen Suzman was the sole opposition lawmaker in South Africa’s parliament, raising her voice time after time against the introduction of racist legislation by the National Party government.

Born in the mining town of Germiston east of Johannesburg to parents who had fled anti-Semitism in Russia, Suzman’s childhood was the charmed one of most whites — tennis, swimming lessons and private schooling.

It was only when she got to university and studied the laws that were being put in place to govern black people that she says she was “roused to the discrimination.”

From then on she began to speak out against the conditions under which black people were forced to live, their lack of job opportunities and especially the dreaded pass system that restricted their movement. Her greatest achievement was helping to ensure that the pass laws were abolished.

She was elected to parliament in 1953 for General Jan Smuts’ United Party. A few years later she helped formed the liberal democratic Progressive Party, a later reincarnation of which is still the official opposition. A snap election in 1961 devastated the party, leaving Suzman on her own until 1974. She kept her seat until she retired in 1989.

“I had a wonderful opportunity to use the parliamentary stage to bring the world’s attention to what was going on,” she said in an Associated Press interview on her 90th birthday.

Statement from the Nelson Mandela Foundation on the Death of Helen Suzman

Anti-apartheid icon passes away, aged 91

Jan. 1, 2009 — Following the announcement by her family that Helen Suzman passed away at age 91 this morning, I would like to express the deepest condolences from the Nelson Mandela Foundation. Our country has lost a great patriot and a fearless fighter against apartheid.

We remember how Mrs Suzman was one of the very few members of Parliament who protested against apartheid legislation, including the 1 May 1963 promulgation of the General Law Amendment Act or “the Ninety Day Detention Law” — the beginning of South Africa’s notorious system of detention without trial.

When as President of South Africa, Mr Mandela bestowed upon Mrs Suzman the Order of Meritorious Service (Gold) in 1997, he commented upon her courage, saying: “It is a courage born of the yearning for freedom; of hatred of oppression, injustice and inequity whether the victim be oneself or another; a fortitude that draws its strength from the conviction that no person can be free while others are unfree.”

In 1967 Mrs Suzman visited Mr Mandela in prison for the first time. In B-Section on Robben Island, his fellow Rivonia Trialists referred her to Mr Mandela as their spokesperson and he conveyed their grievances about prison conditions.

Remembering the visit, Mr Mandela later said: “Mrs Suzman was one of the few, if not the only, member of Parliament who took an interest in the plight of political prisoners.” He added: “It was an odd and wonderful sight to see this courageous woman peering into our cells and strolling around our courtyard. She was the first and only woman ever to grace our cells.”

— Achmat Dangor, Chief Executive of the Nelson Mandela Foundation

Aubrey Immelman meeting with Helen Suzman during a visit to South Africa in 1993 to study the transition from apartheid state to nonracial democracy in the run-up to Nelson Mandela’s election as president in 1994.

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