Helen Suzman (1917-2009)
Text by Dineo Poo
Stamp issue date: 7 November 2017.
“I stand for simple justice, equal opportunity and human rights....“ Helen Suzman.
The South African Post Office has honoured this great, brave and pioneering woman with a rare gesture of a postage stamp, this is a strong indication of her importance to the country and to the liberation thereof and to that of women. The standard postage miniature stamp sheet was designed by Rachel-Mari Ackermann of Philatelic Services.
Helen Suzman managed to accomplish so much in her life that it’s difficult to talk about her without focusing on her political life. It’s easy to forget that she was a daughter, a mother, a wife, an academic, a member of her community as well. As a Member of Parliament, she was able to say: “I stand for simple justice, equal opportunity and human rights. The indispensable elements in a democratic society - and well worth fighting for”.
Helen Suzman was born Helen Gavronsky on November 7, 1917 in Germiston, South Africa. Unlike many white children of her time, she was aware of inequality based on religion, race and culture as her parents were Lithuanian Jews who had immigrated to South Africa to escape oppression. One could say it was inevitable that she should be an activist for fairness and human rights. It would be interesting to know how attending a Roman Catholic convent school as a Jewish child might have affected her and influenced her later life choices.
She went to Wits University after matriculation; married cardiologist Moses Meyer Suzman and completed her degree in economics and economic history in 1940. By 1945 she had become a tutor at Wits and a mother of two girls, Frances and Patricia. A combination of factors during this time led to her politicisation. The first one was probably World War II followed by the election of the National Party to government on an Apartheid ticket in 1948. She ventured into politics by opening a branch of the United Party at Wits University. Helen was by 1953 a Member of Parliament for her party. This was the beginning of a fruitful albeit extremely challenging period of her life as she was to be in parliament for 36 years!
Helen left the United Party in 1959 to help found the more liberal Progressive Party (it became the Progressive Federal Party – PFP in 1977) as her anti-Apartheid views had become more radical as opposed to those of her party. She was re-elected to Parliament in 1961 and up to 1974 she was the only Member of Parliament for her party. Helen’s voice was often the lone one in the fight against progressively oppressive Apartheid laws and actions of the National Party government.
As a woman in a male dominated Parliament, she could have been drowned out and easily silenced but she was highly vocal and did whatever was in her means to fight for the oppressed majority not represented in Parliament. She used the platform Parliament provided very effectively to raise her objections to the inhumane actions of government. The Sharpeville shootings; the increased power of the police and the state; the formation of the Homelands; and the Soweto uprising to name a few examples placed her at loggerheads with her fellow members of Parliament.
She visited political prisoners much to the chagrin of her fellow Members of Parliament. According to Nelson Mandela, when Helen visited him and other prisoners in 1967, she was the first woman that they had ever seen at their cells on Robben Island. He was to hold Helen in high esteem thereafter as per the quote from his birthday message: “On your 85th birthday we can but pay tribute to you, thank you and let you know how fortunate our country feels for having had you as part of its public life and politics. Now, looking back from the safety of our non-racial democracy, we can even feel some sympathy for the National Party members who shared Parliament with you. Knowing what a thorn in the flesh of even your friends and political allies you can be, your forthright fearlessness must have made life hell for them when confronted by you”.
The work carried out by Helen in Parliament brought her to the attention of anti-Apartheid organisations and she received honorary degrees from numerous universities including Harvard, Oxford and Columbia. She was also granted the United Nations’ Human Rights Award; the Moses Mendelssohn Prize, Berlin Senate, in 1988; the B’Nai B’Rith Dor L’Dor Award in 1992 amongst others. Helen was also twice nominated for the Nobel Prize and was also an honorary Dame of the Brittish Empire.
In later life Helen became President of the South African Institute for Race Relations and a member of the South African Human Rights Commission. She also served as a delegate to the Convention for a Democratic South Africa (CODESA).
Helen Suzman will forever be the embodiment of a person in the minority who used her privilege to fight fearlessly, ferociously and fervently for the freedom of the oppressed and as a staunch supporter for fairness. She truly lived her long life of 91 years very actively and purposefully.
- Frances Jowell (Daughter to Helen Suzman)