She was born in South Africa in 1917, the daughter of two Lithuanian immigrants. She attended university and earned her Bachelor of Commerce degree, going on to become a lecturer in economic history. When the National Party came to power in 1948, she became more active in politics and in 1953 she won a position as a Member of Parliament.
During her thirty-six years as a parliamentarian, she fought against the hostile apartheid system and those who sought to maintain it and concerned herself with apartheid’s erosion of civil liberties and violations of human rights. Additionally, she sought to abolish capital punishment and gender discrimination. Suzman’s achievements made her a powerful symbol of opposition in South Africa and across the world. She remained active in politics even after her retirement, until her death in 2009.
When Helen Suzman retired from politics in 1989, she had been a member of the South African Parliament for thirty-six years, during which time she had tirelessly opposed the National Party government and its apartheid policies. For thirteen of those years (1961–1974) she was the only member of the Progressive Party, resisting the apartheid government against great odds. Suzman’s courage, dedication, and great ability in the parliamentary opposition to apartheid won her worldwide recognition. She had fought in and out of parliament for social and political justice and has twice been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize.
She was a consummate parliamentarian, never losing an opportunity to speak, to put questions and to intercede on behalf of those who were caught up in the merciless apartheid system. Although Helen Suzman bore an enormously heavy parliamentary burden, she never failed as far as possible to investigate the often-tragic consequences of apartheid legislation. While Helen Suzman’s main concern lay with apartheid’s erosion of civil liberties and the rule of law, and its appalling human costs, she also concerned herself with the abolition of capital punishment and gender discrimination, particularly as it affected African women whose status in customary law was that of “perpetual minors.”
Helen Suzman grew up in a non-observant home although her father contributed to Jewish charities. Her sense of Jewishness has an ethnic rather than a religious base and, while not an ardent Zionist herself in the sense of wanting to live in Israel, she totally supported the existence of the State of Israel. She believed in the Jewish value of the individual assuming responsibility for the Jewish community at large.