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Biography of Helen SUZMAN

South Africa > Politics : Helen SUZMAN

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Born on 07/11/1917 (format : day/month/year)

Biography :

Helen Suzman , (born Helen Gavronsky November 7, 1917 in South Africa, died 1 January,2009)  was white South African legislator (1953–89), who was an outspoken advocate for the nonwhite majority.
She was anti-apartheid politician and activist . Helen was the only real opposition to apartheid within the all-white Parliament, representing the tiny Progressive Party. When Nelson Mandela eventually became President, he awarded her his country’s highest public honour, for her years of campaigning against the cruelty of South Africa’s race laws.

Helen Suzman was born in the mining town of Germiston on 7 November 1917 to Samuel and Frieda Gavronsky, both immigrants from Eastern Europe who had come to South Africa to escape the restrictions imposed on Jews by Russia.
Samuel, who had considerable business acumen, built up substantial business interests in partnership with his brother so that Helen and her sister were able to grow up in comfortable circumstances.

Helen attended Parktown Convent in Johannesburg, her father having insisted on a good private-school education for his daughters. The regime at the Convent was strict: discipline, punctuality and learning by rote were the order of the day. Helen attributes her good memory to the habits of rote learning instilled into her by the nuns. The head nun, Sister Columba, who was Irish, had a profound effect on Helen. In Helen's autobiography she tells the story of how, in 1966, over 30 years after she had left school, she received a phone call: an Irish voice asked to speak to Helen, who replied, “Hello, Sister Columba”, to the nun's amazement! The call was evidently to wish her well for the upcoming election.

Although never religious, Helen'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 until the present she has been a voracious reader and a keen patron of the arts.

 Her academic career at the university of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg, began in the mid-1930s: as an attractive, vivacious and intelligent young woman it was natural that Helen found her years at Wits “carefree and wholly enjoyable” – with initially disastrous academic results. After dropping out and marrying Mosie Suzman, an eminent physician, in 1937, she returned to her studies in earnest, graduating with first-class passes in both her major subjects, Economics and Economic History. The marriage produced two daughters, Frances, an art historian, now living in London, and Patricia, a medical specialist in Boston.
In 1945 she became a tutor in Economic History, a position that was later converted into a lectureship that she held until 1952, when she entered a nomination contest for a parliamentary seat in the forthcoming 1953 election. There is little doubt that had Helen not opted for a political career she could have shone in academic life, or in law, in which she had previously shown interest.

 Helen's interest in politics had grown during the 1940s, partly due to some of the subjects she had studied at Wits and partly through her active involvement in the South African Institute of Race Relations, a liberal organisation that conducted research on racial issues

But her concern for her country's future and the manifest inequality she saw around her compelled her to take up Politics. She was elected as Member of Parliament in 1953, and successively with the United Party, the Progressive Party, the Progressive Federal Party and the Democratic Party, served in all as an MP for 36 years.

Throughout her long career she has pursued the goal of liberty and equality for all the inhabitants of her great country. Constantly she has fought against the unfounded prejudices of many of her fellow countrymen - the claimed natural inferiority of the blackman to the white - which led to Apartheid and much misery.

Helen Suzmann has been much honoured - Honorary Doctorates from many Universities around the world - including Oxford, Harvard and her own Witswatersrand. Among her many distinctions she was the Recipient of the Human Rights Award of the United Nations in 1978; the medallion of Heroism of New York in 1980; the American Liberties Medal in 1984; and the Moses Mendelssohn Award of the Berlin Senate in 1988.

She devoted her life to the fight for human rights and the rule if law in South africa.
She has made untiring efforts to promote freedom and equality amongst mankind. She has striven hard and achieved much.

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Last update : 01/01/2009

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