Helen Suzman, Anti-Apartheid Activist, Dead At 91

Helen Suzman, a leading anti-apartheid activist and founder of the liberal Progressive Party in South Africa, died peacefully on Thursday in Johannesburg at the impressive age of 91.

Suzman was a staunch critic of apartheid and often one of the few critics of the system among South Africa's ruling white minority. Born Helen Gavronsky in 1917, she married Moses Meyer Suzman in 1937. After returning to her studies in Witwatersand University, Suzman studied and became enraged by South Africa's racial laws. She eventually ran for Parliament under the United Party in Johannesburg's rich Houghton district and remained the district's legislator from 1953 to 1989. In 1959, impatient with her current party's tolerance for segregation, she created the liberal Progressive Party which later became known as the Progressive Federal Party. In Parliament, Suzman became a vocal critic of apartheid, often drawing criticisms for enjoying the the benefits of apartheid:

Diminutive, elegant and indefatigable, Mrs. Suzman confronted the forbidding Afrikaner prime ministers — Hendrik F. Verwoerd, John Vorster and P. W. Botha — who became synonymous with apartheid’s repression of the black and mixed-race populations. She was dismissive of the death threats she received by telephone and in the mail, and undaunted in her showdowns with the men she described as apartheid’s leading “bullies,” who in turn dismissed her as a “dangerous subversive” and a “sickly humanist.”

Shouts of “Go back to Moscow!” greeted her when she rose in Parliament, and, on at least one occasion, “Go back to Israel!” — a reference to her antecedents as the daughter of early 20th-century Jewish immigrants from Lithuania. After the 1976 Soweto riots, Mr. Vorster mocked her for beating with what he called her “pretty little pink hands” against apartheid, while secure in the knowledge, as he claimed, that she and other white opponents could continue to enjoy the privileged lives apartheid guaranteed without fear that their demands for an end to the racial laws would succeed.

“I am not frightened of you — I never have been, and I never will be,” she told Prime Minister Botha in a parliamentary exchange in the late 1970s. “I think nothing of you.”

For his part, Mr. Botha called her “a vicious little cat.” When a government minister once accused her of embarrassing South Africa with her parliamentary questions, she replied, “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa; it is your answers.”

Suzman also drew criticisms from international anti-apartheid activists because she favored a peaceful transition to black majority rule in South Africa and was against the use of sanctions to pressure South Africa to change their policies. However, Suzman befriended many black South African activists, including Nelson Mandela, whom she visited while he was imprisoned.

Helen Suzman, Relentless Challenger Of Apartheid System, Is Dead At 91 [NY Times]
South African Activist Helen Suzman Dies At 91 [MSNBC]