“Helen redefined feisty. Her reputation for political courage became international. In her heyday, she was the apartheid regime’s worst nightmare: an articulate Jewish woman with an attitude and a following abroad.”—The Washington Post
Born Helen Gavronsky in Johannesburg, South Africa, this remarkable harpy broke nearly every rule of society by the time of her death, at age 91.
Elected to Parliament in 1953, Suzman’s career spanned 36 years. A liberal, English-speaking Jew in a country run by conservative, Calvinist Afrikaaners, Helen Suzman used her outsider status to great effect; she crusaded for the marginalized and dispossessed, visited the wretched townships of the black underclass (which were generally off-limits to whites), and forced hearings on government torture and human rights abuses. Over strident objections, Suzman used the authority of her office to visit Nelson Mandela during his bleak 29-year imprisonment at Robben Island. Mandela later recalled: “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.”
Her greatest showdown with apartheid politics came in 1963. At issue was a proposed law that would give authorities the power to detain anyone for 90 days, denying them the right to be formally charged or speak to an attorney. In an open session of Parliament, Suzman called bullshit, declaring the law “undistinguishable from the measures taken in totalitarian or communist countries.” The assembly exploded in anti-Semitic jeers and hoots of contempt. Undeterred, Suzman demanded a rare “division of the house”, with those for and those against the law lining up on opposite sides of the chamber. When the vote was taken, she stood alone—one woman in row after row of empty benches, defiantly facing down 164 white men. “They never knew what hit them,” she recalled proudly.
Suzman’s arch-enemy throughout her career was the loathsome pro-apartheid Prime Minister, P.W. Botha, who publically labeled Suzman a “vicious little cat.” She, for her part, called him an “obnoxious bully” and during one heated exchange told Botha “I am not frightened of you. I have never been, and I never will be. I think nothing of you.” She told another pro-apartheid official that he might benefit from a visit to the township of Soweto, “but disguise yourself—go as a human being.”
Suzman retired from Parliament in 1989, and when Mandela was elected President, she served on his government’s Human Rights Commission. She was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Suzman even lived long enough to see her nemesis, P.W. Botha, ousted from office and tried for his crimes. When Botha died in 2006, she chose honesty over politeness, telling a British paper: ““He was never a friend of mine. In fact, he was my bete noire when I was in parliament. He was very irritable, bad-tempered. He was not enormously intelligent, but he had enough sense to realise that change would have to come.”
For her indomitable spirit, for speaking truth to power, for refusing to back down when outnumbered, for outlasting her enemies, for being a true friend to humanity, and for her gloriously sharp tongue, we name Helen Suzman, z”l, to the Harpy Hall of Fame.