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Helen Suzman, 1961
*Helen Suzman was born on this date in 1917. She was a white Jewish-South African educator, activist, and politician.
She was born Helen Gavronsky at Germiston, Transvaal, on the day the Russian Revolution began, she liked to remark. The daughter of Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants, Suzman studied as an economist and statistician at Witwatersrand University. In 1937, she married Dr. Moses Suzman and had two daughters with him before returning to university as a lecturer in 1944.
She gave up teaching for politics, being elected to Parliament in 1953 as a member of the United Party. She switched to the liberal Progressive Party in 1959 and represented the Houghton constituency as that party's sole Member of Parliament, and the sole parliamentarian unequivocally opposed to apartheid, from 1961 to 1974. Suzman was often harassed by the police and her phone was tapped. Suzman’s technique for dealing with eavesdropping was to blow a whistle into the mouthpiece of the phone.
Suzman was noted for her strong 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. She was once accused by a minister of asking questions in parliament that embarrassed South Africa, to which she replied: "It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa; it is your answers".
Later, as parliamentary white opposition to apartheid grew, the Progressive Party merged with Harry Schwarz's Reform Party and became the Progressive Reform Party. It was renamed the Progressive Federal Party, and Suzman was joined in parliament by notable liberal colleagues such as Colin Eglin. She spent a total of 36 years in parliament. She visited Nelson Mandela on numerous occasions while he was in prison, and was present when he signed the new constitution in 1996.
Suzman was voted #24 in the Top 100 Great South Africans. She was awarded 27 honorary doctorates from universities around the world, was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, and received countless other awards from religious and human rights organizations around the world. Queen Elizabeth II made her an honorary Dame Commander (Civil Division) of the Order of the British Empire in 1989 (she could not take the title Dame as the title is not conferred unless the recipient is a citizen of a Commonwealth realm).
Suzman died on January 1, 2009. Achmat Dangor, Nelson Mandela Foundation chief executive, said Suzman was a "great patriot and a fearless fighter against apartheid."