/ 1 January 2009

Helen Suzman dies in Johannesburg at 91

Helen Suzman has died at the age of 91, her daughter said on Thursday.

Her daughter Frances Jowell said she died peacefully this morning at her home in Johannesburg.

Jowell added, ”We are waiting for family and all grandchildren to arrive.”

Jowell said a private funeral was expected to take place this weekend.

A public memorial would be held in February and details would be announced nearer the time.

Helen Suzman has a special place in South African history, being generally recognised as the most effective parliamentary fighter against the National Party’s apartheid policies when the NP was at the heyday of its power.

For 13 years — from 1961 to 1974 — she was the sole representative in Parliament of the liberal Progressive Party, forerunner of the Democratic Party.

Suzman was born in Germiston, Gauteng, on November 7 1917 to a Jewish Lithuanian immigrant couple, Samuel and Frieda Gavronsky.

Her mother died two weeks later and her father remarried a few years later. Suzman matriculated in 1933 from Parktown Convent, Johannesburg, where a rose garden honouring ”her lifelong struggle for justice and human rights for all South Africans” was unveiled 70 years later in 2003.

A rose was also named after her later in her life. The Helen Suzman Rose (Foxy Lady) has baby pink buds unfolding to light pink-white flowers with a strong fragrance.

After school, Suzman went on to register at the University of the Witwatersrand for a B.Comm degree, but following a trip to Europe, felt unsettled about her studies and did not complete her degree at that stage.

In 1937, aged 19, she married Moses Meyer Suzman, a specialist physician.

The couple had two daughters.

In 1941, following the birth of her first child, Suzman returned to university to complete her degree and then worked as a statistician with the War Supplies Board until 1944.

In 1945 she was appointed tutor and then lecturer in economic history at the University of the Witwatersrand, a post she held until becoming a member of Parliament for the opposition United Party (UP) in the Houghton constituency in 1953.

By 1959 the UP was deeply divided between conservative and progressive groups and following the party’s decision to oppose further purchases of land by the government for African settlement, 11 MPs, including Suzman, resigned.

It was agreed that a new Progressive Party (PP) be formed and at its inaugural congress Dr Jan Steytler was elected leader.

In the 1961 general election Suzman was the only member of the party to retain her seat.

She remained the party’s only representative until 1974, when she was joined by seven colleagues.

This was a turning point for Suzman, who had been considering resigning on the basis that if the party could only retain one seat after 15 years of existence, it should perhaps accept the realities of the situation and disband.

In 1977 the PP’s successor, the Progressive Federal Party, became the official opposition.

Suzman retired from politics in 1989, with Tony Leon succeeding her as MP for Houghton.

During her parliamentary career she was hailed as apartheid’s most effective parliamentary critic and a thorn in the flesh of the government.

This earned her the accolade ”cricket in the thorn tree”.

It was a role she played even after leaving formal politics, describing former state president PW Botha as a ”bad-tempered, irate debater and a bully”, after his death at the age of 90 in October 2006. They had never had an amiable relationship, she told the media of her relationship with the man who accused her of complicity in the assassination of former prime minister Dr Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid.

Botha was often very personal in his attacks, she said. ”I disliked him personally very much. He was so bad-tempered and discourteous, to me anyway. Notwithstanding, I do send condolences to his family.”

In recognition of her role, Suzman received honorary doctorates from a number of leading universities throughout the world and South Africa.

Among them were Oxford, Cambridge, Columbia (New York), Harvard, Witwatersrand and Cape Town.

She also received an honorary Fellowship of the London School of Economics.

Suzman was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and for the Chancellorship of the University of the Witwatersrand.

In 1978 she received the United Nations Award for Human Rights, and she was honoured with an exhibition showcasing her life and work in film, print and photography at the South African Jewish Museum in March 2005. Former South African president Nelson Mandela, whom Suzman visited on Robben Island during his imprisonment there, has referred to her as ”a remarkable South African woman”.

In his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom, Mandela said of Suzman: ”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.”

World-renowned South African author Nadine Gordimer said: ”Helen Suzman had the brains and dignity to stick to her weapons and their target;
her impeccably informed gift of debate hit the bull’s eye of apartheid laws.”

In retirement she occasionally strayed back into the limelight in her characteristically combative manner.

In November 2000 she took to national television to declare her belief that self-proclaimed people’s poet Mzwakhe Mbuli was innocent.

He was serving a 13-year jail sentence for his involvement in a 1997 Pretoria armed robbery at the time.

Six months later, in May 2001, she pooh-poohed public outrage after five national cricketers were caught smoking dagga in their West Indies
hotel room.

She incensed anti-drugs activists when she said she knew of no crime associated with smoking dagga.

She replied with a feisty ”so what” to one activist’s charge that 44% of criminals tested positive for dagga use.

Suzman was a giant in the history of SA’s march to democracy, official opposition Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille said on Thursday.

”Her clarity of vision, her courage and her firmness of purpose stand as beacons to those of us who seek to take that process further,” Zille said.

”We will ensure that her legacy is never forgotten and we send our deepest condolences to her family.” – Sapa