Helen Suzman Biography, Awards, Family, Death

Helen Suzman Biography

Helen Suzman whose birth name is Helen Gavronsky was born on 7th November 1917 in Germiston, South Africa and died on 1st January 2009. She was a South African anti-apartheid activist and politician.

Helen Suzman Education Background

In 1933 she matriculated from Parktown Convent, Johannesburg.

She studied as an economist and statistician at Witwatersrand University.

Helen Suzman Career in Political activism.

Between 1941 and 1944, Suzman worked as a statistician for the War Supplies Board. In 1944, she started lecturing in Economic History at the University of Witwatersrand, a position she held until 1952, when she entered a nomination contest for a parliamentary seat in the 1953 election. She won the contest and represented the United Party (UP) in Parliament that year.

In 1959 together with other eleven liberal members of the United Party broke away to form the Progressive Party.

At the 1961 general election all the other Progressive MPs lost their seats, leaving Suzman as the sole parliamentarian unequivocally opposed to apartheid for thirteen years from 1961 to 1974. She was often harassed by the police and her phone was tapped by them. She had a special technique for dealing with eavesdropping, which was to blow a whistle into the mouthpiece of the phone.

As the sole voice of South Africa’s oppressed, Suzman became known for her strong public criticism of the governing National Party’s policies of apartheid at a time when this was unusual amongst white people. She found herself even more of an outsider, as she was an English-speaking Jewish woman in a parliament dominated by male Afrikaners.

In 1974, six colleagues joined Helen in Parliament and the Progressive Party was renamed the Progressive Federal Party. As a Member of Parliament, she was able to visit prisons, among them Robben Island, where she inspected the living conditions of prisoners and met Nelson Mandela.

Suzman was a Member of Parliament (MP) for 36 years. She retired from Parliament in 1989, but remained actively involved in South African politics. She served as the president of the South African Institute of Race Relations from 1991 to 1993, and served on the Independent Electoral Commission that oversaw the first democratic elections in 1994.

For several years thereafter, Suzman was a member of the statutory Human Rights Commission – clashing on many occasions with its then chairman Dr Barney Pityana. Suzman was at Mandela’s side when he signed the new constitution in 1996, and remained a much-favored speaker. She frequently commented on issues in letters to the press.

Helen Suzman Books

  1. 1991: Helen Suzman’s Solo years
  2. 1991: Holding the high ground
  3. 1986: The University of Cape Town
  4. 1992: No Going Back
  5. 1993: In No Uncertain Terms: Memoirs

Helen Suzman Awards

  • 1978: United Nations Human Rights Award
  • 1980: Medallion of Heroism

Helen Suzman Family

Her parents are Samuel and Frieda Gavronsky, Jewish Lithuanian immigrants.

She married Dr Moses Suzman when she was just 19 years and they have two daughters Frances, an art historian and Patricia, a medical specialist.

Helen Suzman Death

Helen Suzman died on New Year’s Day 2009, aged 91 of natural causes, in her sleep.


Helen Suzman