Helen Suzman dies at 91; South African anti-apartheid leader

Helen Suzman dies at 91; South African anti-apartheid leader
Suzman visits Nelson Mandela at his Soweto home after his release from prison in 1990. She had visited him in 1967 at Robben Island during his imprisonment. (John Parkin / Associated Press)
Helen Suzman, an anti-apartheid activist and former longtime opposition leader in South Africa's parliament who was one of the few white elected officials to win the trust and respect of the country's black majority, died Thursday. She was 91.

Suzman, who was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, died peacefully at her Johannesburg home, her daughter, Frances Jowell, told the South African Press Assn.

The longest-serving member of the country's parliament until her retirement in 1989, Suzman stood up for South Africa's black population which, until the end of apartheid in 1990, had no vote in national affairs. Known for her courage and sharp wit, the 5-foot, 3-inch Suzman was often the target of insults, obscene phone calls and death threats during her 36 years in parliament.

During the decades of racial violence, Suzman frequently visited black townships and attended funerals of many black militants killed in the conflict. She befriended Nelson Mandela, South Africa's first post-apartheid president, and other African National Congress leaders, during their long imprisonment on Robben Island, hearing their complaints about conditions during a visit in 1967.

"Mrs. Suzman was one of the few, if not the only, member of parliament who took an interest in the plight of political prisoners," Mandela said of the visit, according to the Nelson Mandela Foundation. "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."

Although Suzman opposed apartheid, she believed that change would come best through peaceful means. She opposed international economic sanctions against the white-minority government, noting that such curbs would place disproportionate hardships on the black population. This stance often brought her into conflict with those advocating stronger measures both at home and abroad.

Her main foe during much of the time was South Africa's hard-line President Pieter W. Botha, who once declared that her presence at a peaceful anti-apartheid demonstration was bordering on illegal.

Suzman responded to him in parliament: "The honorable prime minister has been trying to bully me for 28 years, and he has not succeeded yet. I am not frightened of you. I never have been and I never will be. I think nothing of you."

Helen Suzman was born Nov. 7, 1917, in the mining town of Germiston in South Africa's Transvaal. She was the daughter of Samuel and Frieda Gavronsky, Lithuanian Jews who had emigrated to South Africa to avoid religious persecution. Her father was a well-to-do butcher and later prospered in real estate. Helen was educated at a Catholic convent in Johannesburg before enrolling, at the age of 16, at the University of Witwatersrand, where she earned a bachelor's degree in commerce.

She married Moses Meyer Suzman, an internist specializing in heart, blood and nervous disorders. He died in 1994. During World War II, she worked as a statistician for the War Supplies Board and gave birth to two daughters: Frances, who is now an art historian living primarily in London, and Patricia, a medical specialist in Boston.

After the war, she found work as a tutor and lecturer in economic history at her alma mater. She became interested in politics while working for the South African Institute of Race Relations on a study of the country's restrictive pass laws for blacks, which severely limited where they could live and work.

In 1952, she was asked to run for parliament as a United Party candidate representing Houghton, then an affluent, progressive voting district near Johannesburg. She ran unopposed and won the election for a five-year term. Her tenure was unbroken until her retirement in 1989.

Several years after her election, she and 11 other progressive members of parliament split with the United Party and formed the Progressive Federal Party, with an openly liberal agenda of extending rights to all South Africans. The PFP became for a time the ruling National Party's official opposition in parliament.

Being in opposition was often a lonely business for Suzman. From 1961 to 1973, she was the sole liberal member of parliament. She loudly criticized civil rights abuses by the government and urged an end to apartheid.

Over the years, her activism spurred investigations into several incidents, including the 1977 death in government custody of Steve Biko, the black consciousness leader. In her last speech in parliament, she proposed a motion of censure on a judge who had imposed a sentence of just five years on a farmer convicted of killing a black worker who had accidentally run over the farmer's dogs. Her motion failed, but the judge in question was transferred from case work.

During much of her time as a legislator, Suzman was able to circumvent government bans on reporting of news that it deemed "subversive" with harsh questioning of government officials on the floor of parliament.

"Parliament is the only place where laws can be repealed and the government can be held to account and information can be extracted," she told the New Yorker magazine some years ago. "I've built up a body of statistics by asking questions -- numbers of people detained, for instance, those prosecuted, those hanged. The press has found this valuable, and I've found the press valuable."

When one of her foes accused her of giving South Africa a bad name with this kind of questioning, she responded: "It's not my questions that give the country a bad name. It's your replies."

After her retirement, she served on the Independent Electoral Commission that oversaw the country's first multiracial elections in 1994.

According to her foundation's website, although she welcomed the transition to democratic rule, she was disappointed by the country's high unemployment and widespread government corruption.

She was also alarmed by the government's lack of evident concern about the explosion of HIV/AIDS cases and its protection of Zimbabwe's dictatorial leader Robert Mugabe.

She remained inordinately proud that in 2001 she was declared an "Enemy of the State" by Mugabe.