Scourge of apartheid, Helen Suzman, dies at 91

By Ruth Rothenberg, January 8, 2009
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The white scourge of apartheid, Helen Suzman, whose death at the age of 91 was announced this week, was credited with shortening its lifespan through her courageous and often lonely campaign to publicise its outrages and befriend its victims.

She came to her political views as an adult after growing up in Johannesburg, with black service taken for granted. Her mother died when she was born. Her Lithuanian-born father, Sam Gavronsky, who ran a meat and cattle business, remarried when she was nine.

Helen went to university but dropped out at 19, when she married Dr Mosie Suzman, 33, a senior physician at Johannesburg General Hospital, who was still practising at 86. He died in 1994.

With his encouragement and excellent domestic help, Helen returned to Witwatersrand University to complete her degree in commerce, and lectured in the economics department from 1945-53. It was while working there, in the Institute of Race Relations, that she realised the repression that underpinned her privileged existence.

Outraged at the sheer injustice of apartheid, she stood for South Africa’s parliament — for the opposition United Party — in 1953, representing the affluent Jewish constituency of Houghton.

She continued as MP in the newly formed Progressive Party in 1961, where she was the sole member until the Progressives started winning more seats in 1974. When she retired in 1989, she was given an honorary DBE by Margaret Thatcher’s government. Mrs Suzman, famous for her acid and scathing wit, became a dedicated exposer of injustice, dogging the Nationalist government and publicising blatant injustices.

Her visits to victims of injustice, notably Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners on Robben Island, won her respect and affection from an oppressed population. She hit back at, or ignored with contempt, the abusive and often antisemitic taunts of embittered whites.

But when apartheid finally unravelled in 1994, she was concerned that frustration among embittered, uneducated and unemployed black youth would strain a fragile democracy. Twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, she published her memoir, In No Uncertain Terms, in 1993.

A member of Johannesburg Great Synagogue, she was not interested in communal affairs but did worry at the drain of young Jewish professionals.The Jewish population was not liberal, she noted, but most liberals were Jews.

When honoured by an Orthodox American group, she needed reassurance that it was not for her non-existent shul-going. But she was happy to shoot back at detractors that she was “Jewish on her parents’ side”.
She is survived by daughters, Frances and Patti, and two grandchildren.

Last updated: 7:55pm, January 8 2009