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.
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
She remained in parliament with its successors, the Progressive
Reform Party and then the Progressive Federal Party, until her retirement
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
Helen Suzman was the only representative willing to
see disenfranchised black South Africans as part of her constituency.
counted among this constituency political prisoners, and they included
President Nelson Mandela on Robben Island.
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.
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.
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.
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
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.