A member of the South African House of Assembly for the Progressive Federal Party for over three decades, Helen Suzman (born 1917) was known internationally for her forthright opposition to apartheid and uncompromising advocacy of the interests of millions of nonwhite and liberally-minded South Africans.
Helen Suzman was born on November 7, 1917, at Germiston in the Transvaal province of South Africa, the daughter of Samuel and Freda Gavronsky. Her father, a Jewish immigrant to South Africa from Lithuania, worked initially as a hides dealer but in time made a fortune in real estate. Suzman was educated in Johannesburg at the Parktown Convent and later at the University of Witwatersrand, where in 1940 she obtained a Bachelor of Commerce degree in economics and economic history. In 1937 she married physician Moses B. Suzman, a member of a prominent Johannesburg family.
In 1944 Suzman was appointed as a part-time lecturer in the Department of Economics and Economic History at the University of the Witwatersrand following three years work as a statistician for the South African War Supplies Board. Her later research into the economic conditions of the country instilled in her a deep concern for the depressed economic circumstances afflicting most nonwhite South Africans, especially those in the cities. This awareness drew her ever more into national political life. When in May 1948 the governing and relatively liberal United Party was narrowly defeated by the conservative National Party, Suzman organized a branch of the United Party at her own university and became its first chairperson. Five years later, unable to recruit a suitable United Party candidate for her own highly affluent Houghton parliamentary constituency, Suzman ran herself and won the seat in the House of Assembly that she held for over three decades.
Founding of the Progressive Party
By 1959 the experience of being in parliamentary opposition to the National Party government had sapped the United Party of much of its one-time optimism, coherence, and vigor, causing it to drift gradually to the right politically. This alienated Suzman who, together with 11 other members of Parliament (MPs) sharing her liberal beliefs, finally resigned from the United Party to found the new Progressive Party under the leadership of Jan van A. Steytler.
The Progressive Party at first advocated a "qualified" franchise for all South African citizens regardless of race or color and a central government of carefully defined and limited powers. By the mid-1980s Progressive Party policy embraced the idea of a nonracial and universal franchise, but within a federated South African state. However, in the 1960s the Progressives had little influence on government policy and limited popular following. Thus in 1961 Suzman was the only Progressive MP to secure reelection—by a margin of just 564 votes—at a general election the government called especially in hopes of crushing the new party. For the next 13 years she would be her party's sole representative in Parliament—a courageous, overworked, and often lonely voice defending liberal values in a context that became steadily less hospitable to liberalism.
The Valiant Fight
Though politically alone in the House of Assembly after 1961, Suzman continued her advocacy of a multiracial and democratic society for South Africa against overwhelming parliamentary odds. Her personal dynamism and quick wit led to lively but also sometimes bitter exchanges between her and her Assembly colleagues. Invariably outvoted, Suzman nevertheless got her frequent dissents onto the record and thereby to some degree succeeded in keeping liberal perspectives continuously before the South African public. The eloquence and intelligence of her positions, the doggedness of her efforts, and the very isolation of her position in the House of Assembly gained for her a special political notoriety both at home and abroad, as well as an admiring personal following.
In 1963 Suzman registered the only vote in the House against Minister of Justice (later Prime Minister) B. J. Vorster's infamous security legislation, which rendered all South Africans liable to arrest without charge for periods of up to 90 days at a time. Later she was the only member of Parliament to condemn the Rhodesian government's seizure of independence (so-called "UDI") in November 1965. Though not always so alone, through the 1960s and early 1970s Suzman registered a long series of powerful dissents at various government apartheid and security proposals—the so-called Sabotage Bill of 1962, press controls, "independent" African "homelands, " labor policy, and influx control, to mention only a few. In a legislative sense she lost all these fights, but she gained immense personal respect outside the House of Assembly as seemingly the only true parliamentary opponent of the apartheid state. Her own electoral majorities in Houghton steadily grew, but her party's fortunes at first languished.
Then in the general election of 1974 Suzman's party succeeded in returning six additional MPs to the House of Assembly, reducing her previous heavy burden—carried for more than a decade—of individually opposing government spokesmen from more than 20 different departments. In 1985 she shared this duty with her party's 26 other MPs, within which group she was the highly respected senior member. Suzman's political views, which often adopted an economic perspective, were frequently considered radical by her fellow white South Africans, though they would be considered conservative in most Western countries. She advocated a multiracial society for South Africa in which equality of opportunity rather than absolute economic equality should be the standard to be achieved. Her views, among others, finally prevailed with the free, democratic elections in the early 1990s and the ultimate election of Nelson Mandela as president. Suzman decided not to run for Parliament in the 1989 elections, thus ending her 36 years of public service. She visited Parliament in February, 1991, as honoree to accept a recently-commissioned portrait of herself destined to hang in the halls of Parliament.
Helen Suzman ranked among the best known South Africans overseas and among the most widely respected. Together with other senior leaders of her party she traveled widely in nonwhite Africa and was received by many of Africa's principal leaders. In 1972 she was invited to give the first Moshoeshoe 1 lecture in Lesotho. She was awarded honorary degrees by Oxford, Harvard, and Columbia universities, among several others, and in 1978 was granted the United Nations' Human Rights Award. She also received the Moses Mendelssohn Prize, Berlin Senate, in 1988; the B'Nai B'Rith Dor L'Dor Award in 1992; and a Notre Dame University, Indiana (USA) award in 1995.
Moses and Helen Suzman had two daughters. The family was affiliated with the Great Synagogue in Johannesburg and resided in the Hyde Park district of that city. From 1990-1993, Suzman served as president of the South African Institute of Race Relations in Johannesburg.
Further Reading on Helen Suzman
Suzman's own autobiographical book, In No Uncertain Terms (Knopf, 1993), with a forward by Nelson Mandela, has been generally well-received. Another principal biography is entitled A Cricket in the Thorntree: Helen Suzman and the Progressive Party, by Joanna Strangewayes-Booth (Johannesburg, 1976). On the fate of liberalism and liberals in South Africa in general one might consult Margaret Ballinger's From Union to Apartheid: A Trek to Isolation (Cape Town, 1969); Paul B. Rich's White Power and the Liberal Conscience: Racial Segregation and South African Liberalism, 1921-1960 (Manchester University Press, 1984); or particularly Janet Robertson's Liberalism in South Africa, 1948-1963 (Oxford University Press, 1971). Alan Paton's South African Tragedy: The Life and Times of Jan Hofmeyer (1965) treats much the same problem in the context of a different figure and an earlier time.