At the start of the year, it’s good to take inspiration from someone like this.
CAPE TOWN, South Africa – Anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman, who won international acclaim as one of the few white lawmakers in South Africa to fight against the injustices of racist rule, died yesterday. She was 91.
Mrs. Suzman fought a long and lonely battle in the South African Parliament against government repression of the country’s black majority and the imprisonment of Nelson Mandela.
For 13 years, Mrs. Suzman was the sole opposition lawmaker in Parliament, raising her voice time after time against the introduction of racist legislation by the National Party government.
“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 later recalled.
“Mrs. Suzman was one of the few, if not the only, member of Parliament who took an interest in the plight of political prisoners,” he said.
Mrs. Suzman was born in the mining town of Germiston, east of Johannesburg, to Lithuanian-Jewish parents who had fled anti-Semitism. Her childhood was the charmed one of most whites with tennis, swimming lessons, and private schooling.
After Mrs. Suzman arrived at a university, she began to speak out against the conditions under which black people were forced to live, especially a dreaded pass system that restricted their movement.
Mrs. Suzman’s relationship with P.W. Botha, the former president and one of the most ruthless enforcers of apartheid laws, was one of mutual loathing. She described him as “an obnoxious bully” and said that if he were female, “he would arrive in Parliament on a broomstick,” according to the Helen Suzman Foundation website.
Botha once referred to her as “a vicious little cat.” Mrs. Suzman didn’t mind as she adored animals and was surrounded by them at her home.
She was a remarkable woman. I heard a bit about her on NPR the other day, and wondered why I hadn’t heard of her before other than a few passing mentions.