As an adolescent too young for university, I spent my Gap Year abroad, along with students from all over the world. The heroes in 1966 were largely Fidel Castro and Ernesto Che Guevara, and the villain was Ian Smith. But for me, Helen Suzman was the person on whom I would have modelled my life.
Helen Gavronsky was born in South Africa in 1917. Her parents were part of an enormous flood of to Jewish immigrants from the Baltic states to South Africa, desperate for a peaceful, decent life.
Helen studied as an economist and statistician at Witwatersrand University. At 20, she married Dr Moses Suzman and had some children, before returning to university as a lecturer in 1944. She gave up the academic life for politics, being elected to Parliament in 1953 as a member of the United Party. She switched to the liberal Progressive Party in 1959, and represented her district as that party's sole member of parliament, and the sole parliamentarian clearly opposed to apartheid, from 1961-74.
What the obituaries don’t say is that her life was made a misery by the ruling white government. As students in the late 1960s, my friends and I heard about the police being sent to watch her every action, whether work-related or private. Her mail was apparently examined and her phones were apparently bugged. Since she was Jewish, a woman, middle class, liberal and a very vocal opponent of apartheid, the National Party was going to put every conceivable hurdle in her way. I am amazed she survived the assassin’s bullets.
The most obnoxious bit of legislation was the Black Homeland Citizenship Act of 1970 which changed the status of the blacks. They would no longer be citizens of South Africa, but would became citizens of one of the ten autonomous territories.
Later, as parliamentary white opposition to apartheid grew, her Party merged with the Reform Party and became the Progressive Reform Party. It was renamed the Progressive Federal Party and eventually Suzman was joined in parliament by equally committed representatives. Altogether Suzman’s parliamentary career lasted 36 years.
Suzman left parliament in 1989, just in time for the inevitable emergence of a new South Africa. Very shortly after, in 1991, the government formally repealed all apartheid laws.
I didn’t know it but apparently Suzman had been allowed to visit Nelson Mandela in gaol from time to time, and she was present when he signed the new constitution in 1996. Mandela won the Nobel Peace prize in 1993, totally appropriately, but alas Suzman never did. On behalf of all the young women in the 1960s whose values were modelled so well by Helen Suzman, I say let’s make an exception to the Nobel Prize rule – let’s give one Nobel Peace Prize posthumously.
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