Page last updated at 18:04 GMT, Thursday, 1 January 2009

Suzman 'brave voice' on apartheid

By Peter Biles
BBC News, Johannesburg

Helen Suzman with a recently released Nelson Mandela on 26 February 1990
Helen Suzman said Nelson Mandela could bring unity to South Africa

At her quiet suburban home in northern Johannesburg, Helen Suzman did not, at first glance, have the appearance of a political activist who drew the wrath of white South Africa's rulers.

Yet over a period of four decades in parliament, she regularly had to endure a stream of insults from government ministers and National Party MPs.

They fired anti-Semitic broadsides at her and accused her of being a Communist Party sympathiser.

As the lone voice of serious opposition in parliament for 13 years, she shrugged off the verbal abuse in a combative, courageous manner that earned her the respect of many anti-apartheid campaigners around the world.

As an opposition MP, Helen Suzman was one of the few people who was allowed to make a succession of visits to Robben Island to see Nelson Mandela and other political prisoners.

On the occasion of Mr Mandela's 90th birthday in July 2008, she told me about her first meeting with him in 1967.

"When I walked into the single cell section, I found this tall, impressive, good-looking man standing in the entrance. He stuck his hand through the bars and said: 'Very pleased to meet you', and from that moment on, we had an easy conversation.

"Mandela disclosed all the indignities and hardships which the political prisoners were exposed to, even though the chief warder was close by, listening to every word," she said.

Shortly after this visit, Helen Suzman made a speech in parliament stating that Mr Mandela was the one man who could bring about peaceful reconciliation.

"That was the immediate impression," she said in her 2008 interview, "He (Mandela) was reasonable, there was no passionate hatred, there was a desire to bring the people of South Africa together, irrespective of race."

'Good value'

Helen Suzman was able to use her parliamentary privilege to draw attention to Mr Mandela's incarceration, even though the ANC leader was not allowed to be quoted in public or his photograph published.

She also made herself unpopular with the leaders of the apartheid state by befriending Nelson Mandela's second wife, Winnie.

Helen Suzman with Winnie Mandela on 8 August 1986
Helen Suzman formed a bond with Mr Mandela's wife, Winnie

In a BBC Woman's Hour interview in 1986, Mrs Suzman made it clear that she had not always agreed with Winnie Mandela's views, but she nonetheless respected her.

"She is tough. She has had to be. She has had to be much tougher than I have been - I have never been put in prison and I have never been banned. And I certainly haven't had a husband imprisoned all those years."

Last July, despite her increasing frailty and the need to use a walking frame, Helen Suzman was still characteristically forthright as we talked about the state of South Africa, 14 years after the birth of democracy.

"I'm extremely disappointed at what's happening, and I have to put most of the blame on Thabo Mbeki (the former president) for two particularly obnoxious things he's done - his denialist attitude to Aids, and secondly Zimbabwe and the dreadful backing of Robert Mugabe."

"But there are other things too - crime, corruption, the failure to deliver on the promise of a better of life for all, the unemployment and the appalling conditions under which millions are still living," she said.

Helen Suzman dedicated her 1993 autobiography "In No Uncertain Terms" to "all the Progs (Progressive Party members and supporters) who over so many despairing years helped to keep democratic values alive".

Last year, as we looked at an out-of-print copy of the book at her home, her eyes sparkled with the familiar fire and wit, as she spotted the faded price tag still attached.

"Bloody good value it was too," she said.

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