Helen Suzman was born in the mining town of Germiston, South Africa on November 7, 1917, the daughter of Jewish immigrants from Lithuania.
Although never religious, Suzman’s Jewish origins imparted two qualities that were important: a sensitivity to the evils of discrimination, and a respect for learning and culture. From an early age, she was a voracious reader.
Suzman graduated with first-class passes in both her major subjects, Economics and Economic History from the University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg. In 1945 she became a tutor in Economic History, a position that was later converted into a lectureship that she held until 1952.
She gave up teaching for politics, being elected to Parliament in 1953 as a member of the United Party. She helped form the liberal Progressive Party in 1959 and was the sole parliamentarian unequivocally opposed to apartheid, from 1961 to 1974.
Suzman was noted for her strong public criticism of the policies of apartheid at a time when this was unusual among whites, and found herself even more of an outsider by virtue of being an English-speaking Jewish woman in a parliament dominated by Calvinist Afrikaner men. She was once accused by a minister of asking questions in parliament that embarrassed South Africa, to which she replied: “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa, it is your answers.”
She was a great believer in on-the-spot fact-finding. Whether it was the forced removal of a community, a fracas between police and protestors, or conditions in prisons, she made it her business to go and find out for herself. Her visits to prisons, notably Robben Island, were among her finest achievements. Nelson Mandela wrote in glowing terms of her visits to Robben Island – and the improvement in conditions that her interventions brought about.
After stepping down as an MP, she served as president of the South African Institute of Race Relations from 1991 to 1993. She served on the Independent Electoral Commission that oversaw the first democratic election in 1994, and was for three years thereafter a member of the statutory Human Rights Commission.
Suzman visited Nelson Mandela numerous times in prison, and was at his side when, as President, he signed the new South African constitution in 1996. Following her retirement from politics, Suzman established the Helen Suzman Foundation geared towards promoting Liberal democratic values and promoting human rights in South Africa.