The enmity was mutual.
In a typical parliamentary exchange in which Botha warned her against breaking the law, she said:
“I am not frightened of you. I never have been and I never will be. I think nothing of you.”
A principled, singular individual for 13 years, alone in the group in her contention.
Diminutive, elegant and indefatigable, she confronted the forbidding Afrikaner prime ministers — Hendrik F. Verwoerd, John Vorster and P. W. Botha — who became synonymous with apartheid’s repression of the black and mixed-race populations. She was dismissive of the death threats she received by telephone and in the mail, and undaunted in her showdowns with the men she described as apartheid’s leading “bullies,” who in turn dismissed her as a “dangerous subversive” and a “sickly humanist.”
Subversive Humanist indeed.
For decades, she was among the most venerated of white campaigners urging an end to racial rule, becoming known as a “cricket in the thorn tree” for her outspoken views.
Suzman matriculated in 1933 from Parktown Convent, Johannesburg. She studied as an economist and statistician at Witwatersrand University. At age 19, she married Dr Moses Suzman (died 1994), who was considerably older than she was; the couple had two daughters. Suzman returned to university lecturing in 1944, later giving up her teaching vocation to enter politics. She was elected to the House of Assembly in 1953 as a member of the United Party for the Houghton constituency in Johannesburg. [Wikipedia, revised]
Suzman and eleven other liberal members of the United Party broke away to form the Progressive Party in 1959. 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. Often harassed by the police, and her phone was tapped by them, Suzman had a special technique for dealing with eavesdropping, which was to blow a whistle into the mouthpiece of the phone.
An eloquent public speaker with a sharp and witty manner, Suzman was noted for her strong and contentious public criticism of the governing National Party’s policies of apartheid at a time when this was atypical of white South Africans. She found herself even more of an outsider because she was an English-speaking Jewish woman in a parliament dominated by Calvinist Afrikaner men. Once accused by a minister of asking questions in parliament that embarrassed South Africa, Helen Suzman replied:
“It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa; it is your answers”.
No longer in Parliament in her final years, she remained an acerbic critic of what she viewed as official wrongdoing, now by the country’s new black rulers. Helen joined other prominent South Africans in demanding a fresh inquiry into dubious government arms contracts in the 1990s, some involving the president of the African National Congress, Jacob Zuma.
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Her strategy was to use her parliamentary privilege to try and reveal the horrors of apartheid, and she never gave up.
A lone representative in the all-white Parliament for 13 years until the mid-1970s, a period when many of apartheid’s most repressive features were being devised, she used her parliamentary immunity to speak out when other avenues of protest were harshly suppressed.
While she challenged apartheid at a time of violent protests among the black majority, she advocated peaceful change. More controversially, she differed sharply with more radical campaigners inside and outside South Africa who were supportive of economic sanctions to press the country’s white rulers toward reform, saying sanctions would hurt poor blacks more than whites.
To Suzman’s frustration, this led some of her critics to say she was unwittingly helping to prolong apartheid.
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For 13 years, from 1961 to 1974, Helen Suzman was a thorn in the flesh of the National party government.
Suzman became known as a “cricket in the thorn tree” for her outspoken views.
Talking with John Pilger about using parliament to achieve her goals, fighting apartheid
Twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and for the chancellorship of the University of the Witwatersrand.
In 1978 she received the United Nations award for human rights, and she was honoured with an exhibition showcasing her life and work in film, print and photography at the South African Jewish Museum in March 2005.
Former South African president Nelson Mandela, whom Suzman visited on Robben Island during his imprisonment, has referred to her as “a remarkable South African woman“.
“It was an odd and wonderful sight to see this courageous woman peering into our cells and strolling around our courtyard. She was the first and only woman ever to grace our cells,” Mandela said in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.
Archbishop Desmond Tutu, winner of the 1984 Nobel Peace Prize, who forged a close friendship with Mrs. Suzman when they were leading proponents of peaceful change during the violent upheavals of the 1970s and 1980s, said in his statement that the country owed her an enormous debt. “She really was indomitable,” he said.
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By the early 1990s, when apartheid gave way to black majority rule, there was widespread affection for Mrs. Suzman in black townships like Soweto, where many people knew her simply as ‘Miss Helen’.
Universities around the world awarded Mrs. Suzman 27 honorary doctorates, and she received numerous other honors from the United Nations and an array of religious and human rights groups around the world. Queen Elizabeth II made her an honorary dame, customary for citizens of countries other than Britain.
Suzman said she traced her opposition to apartheid to her university years, when she studied South Africa’s racial laws and was incensed by what she learned, particularly by the so-called pass laws, which were fundamental to the apartheid system, restricting where blacks could live and work.
She ran for Parliament in Johannesburg’s upscale Houghton district and remained the district’s legislator from 1953 to 1989. She began as a member of the United Party, which had been usurped in 1949, after decades as South Africa’s governing party, by the Afrikaner-dominated National Party. It was the Nationalists, under Mr. Verwoerd, who codified and extended the existing racial laws, creating apartheid.
In 1959, impatient with the United Party’s tolerance of racial segregation, she became a founder of the liberal Progressive Party, later known as the Progressive Federal Party, which favored a more inclusive, nonracial franchise that would lead to black majority rule. Some of the most relentless enforcers of apartheid eventually developed a grudging respect for her, even a hint of affection. James T. Kruger, the justice minister under Mr. Vorster during the Soweto riots, was one of the “bullies” Mrs. Suzman frequently denounced.
Years later, out of office, Mr. Kruger learned that Mrs. Suzman was planning a tourist visit to the Soviet Union with her husband. A keen amateur philatelist, he approached her in the parliamentary lobby and gave her a sheaf of self-addressed postcards and letters, each bearing new South African stamps, asking her to mail them back to him from Moscow.
When she said that the Soviet postal authorities would not accept South African stamps, she recalled, Mr. Kruger was puzzled. For Mrs. Suzman, the incident demonstrated the occluded world inhabited by many apartheid leaders, who often acted, she said, as if they belonged to the 17th, not the 20th century. “Poor old Jimmy Kruger,” she said. “Like most of them, he knew very little of the world beyond South Africa.”
First free elections