2001• Ubuntu Award

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Helen Suzman, the recipient of Ubuntu Award, has, over the course of 36 years as a member of Parliament, become South African’s best-known woman politician. She has won world recognition for her staunch and ceaseless opposition to the policy of apartheid.

Born Helen Gavronsky in Germiston, Transvaal, South Africa, she trained as an economist and statistician at Witwatersrand University. She married Dr. Moses Suzman when she was 20, and had two daughters with him before returning to her university as a part-time lecturer in 1944. After leaving academic life in 1952, Suzman entered politics and was elected to parliament as a member of the United Party in 1953. In 1961 she switched to the Progressive Party, serving as its sole representative in the South African legislature until 1974.

She remained in parliament with its successors, the Progressive Reform Party and then the Progressive Federal Party, until her retirement in 1989.

Throughout her long parliamentary career she campaigned fearlessly and ceaselessly against the now-discredited apartheid laws. For many years Helen Suzman was the only opposition to the government on these issues; the formal opposition party colluding with the government in the name of fighting communism.

Helen Suzman was the only representative willing to see disenfranchised black South Africans as part of her constituency.

She counted among this constituency political prisoners, and they included President Nelson Mandela on Robben Island.

When he was first sent to Robben Island, President Mandela describes in his autobiography, he was refused access to all books, newspapers, radios, or other sources of learning. Because of the persistent year-after-year efforts of Helen Suzman, the prison authorities finally relented and allowed political prisoners to receive books, and ultimately, to enroll in courses of education that they could take by correspondence.

President Mandela, whom she visited regularly, was one of those who made effective use of that small privilege, not only for himself but for all prisoners serving long prison sentences. Members of the African National Congress who had never had an opportunity to finish high school were now enrolled in a lifetime of learning, albeit behind bars.

Some learned to read and to write while they were incarcerated. Others studied for their high school diplomas and then undergraduate degrees. They learned other languages. They learned the histories of other peoples. They learned the history of Afrikaners in South Africa.

They learned their own history. And this learning played a critical role in their survival. By voicing her opposition at every opportunity, and by securing for political prisoners the right to books and study materials, she gave them the tools of sanity and humanity.

Her efforts have earned the respect of Nelson Mandela, the African National Congress and, internationally, she has been awarded over 28 honourary degrees, and two nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize. In 1993 she published her autobiography, In No Uncertain Terms: A South African Memoir, inspiring her country and the world to recognize the injustices of the South African government.

In 1996 she was awarded the Politeken and Dangens Nyheters Freedom Prize, jointly with Nelson and Winnie Mandela.

Helen Suzman is currently active in the appeal of Mzwakhe Mbuli, a South African poet believed to have been framed by the police. She visits him regularly in jail and attends all trial sessions.

South African Women for Women is proud to recognize Helen Suzman for a public life devoted to leadership in human rights.