South African activist Helen Suzman dies at 91

CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) -- South African anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman, who won international acclaim as one of the few white lawmakers to fight against the injustices of racist rule, died Thursday. She was 91. Suzman, who was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize, 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.

Nelson Mandela Foundation chief executive Achmat Dangor said Suzman was a "great patriot and a fearless fighter against apartheid."

Suzman's daughter, Frances Jowell, said that Suzman died peacefully at her Johannesburg home. Jowell told the South African Press Association that there would be a private funeral this weekend and a public memorial service in February.

For 13 years, Suzman was the sole opposition lawmaker in South Africa's parliament, raising her voice time after time against the introduction of racist legislation by the National Party government.

After her retirement from parliament in 1989, she served on a variety of top public institutions, including the Independent Electoral Commission that oversaw the country's first multiracial elections in 1994.

She was at Mandela's side when he signed the new constitution in 1996 as South Africa's first black president. A year later, Mandela awarded her a special gold medal in honor of her contributions.

"It is a courage born of the yearning for freedom; of hatred of oppression, injustice and inequity whether the victim be oneself or another; a fortitude that draws its strength from the conviction that no person can be free while others are unfree," Mandela said at the time.

Suzman had first visited Mandela in prison on Robben Island in 1967, when she heard his grievances about prison conditions.

"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.

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 - tennis, swimming lessons and private schooling.

When Suzman got to university, she began to speak out against the conditions under which black people were forced to live, especially the dreaded pass system that restricted their movement.

In 1953, she was elected to parliament for General Jan Smuts' United Party. A few years later, she helped formed the liberal democratic Progressive Party, a later reincarnation of which is still the official opposition. A snap election in 1961 devastated the party, leaving Suzman on her own until 1974. She kept her seat until her retirement in 1989 at the age of 72.

She was especially jubilant about the 1986 abolition of the pass laws as part of the slow and uneven unravelling of apartheid legislation and had just one regret about leaving Parliament: "That I didn't stay on one extra year to watch all the bills that I'd opposed being repealed."

In interview with The Associated Press on her 90th birthday in November 2007, Suzman said: "I had a wonderful opportunity to use the parliamentary stage to bring the world's attention to what was going on."

Suzman's relationship with former President P.W. Botha, 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 Web site.

Botha once referred to her as "a vicious little cat" - Suzman didn't mind as she adored animals and was surrounded by them at her home.

Suzman was bestowed with 27 honorary doctorates, including ones from Oxford, Harvard, Columbia, Yale, and Cambridge universities. She was made Dame of the British Empire in 1989 - a rare honor for a foreigner.

In addition to many other titles, she said she was especially proud of being declared "Enemy of the State" by Zimbabwe's autocratic President Robert Mugabe in 2001.

At her 90th birthday, she spoke openly about her disillusionment with the lack of progress in addressing crime, unemployment and poverty in South Africa but praised the post-apartheid government for economic policy achievements.

"Masses of black people are very disappointed with lack of delivery of housing, water and sanitation," she told the AP.

Suzman prided herself for reading four newspapers every morning and championing causes close to her heart - including the decriminalization of marijuana.

"The great thing about my life is that is has never been boring - long, interesting, maddening at times but never boring," she said.


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