Helen Suzman Biography

Activist, Government Official, Civil Rights Activist (1917–2009)
A founder of the Progressive Federal Party, human rights activist Helen Suzman was an anti-apartheid member of South Africa's Parliament for 36 years.


Helen Suzman was born on November 7, 1917, in Germiston, South Africa. In 1953, she joined the South African Parliament. Six years later, Suzman became one of the founders of the Progressive Party (later renamed the Progressive Federal Party), which opposed apartheid rule. She remained a member of Parliament until her 1989 retirement. Suzman died on January 1, 2009, in Johannesburg, South Africa.

Early Years

South African Parliament member and human rights activist Helen Suzman was born Helen Gavronsky on November 7, 1917, in Germiston, South Africa. Her parents, Samuel and Frieda Gavronsky, were Lithuanian Jews who had immigrated to South Africa to escape oppression.

Raised in Germiston, a gold-mining town, Gavronsky received her childhood education at the Parktown convent school in nearby Johannesburg. She went on to attend Johannesburg's University of Witwatersrand. In 1937, when Gavronsky was 19, she dropped out of school and married cardiologist Moses Meyer Suzman, thus becoming Helen Suzman.

Suzman eventually re-enrolled at the University of Witwatersrand, where she studied economics and economic history. She received her degree in 1940. The following year, Suzman started to serve as a statistician for South Africa's War Supplies Board. In 1944, she became a lecturer at her alma mater.


Discriminatory racial laws had existed for years in South Africa, but it was the National Party—after taking control of the government in 1949—that began to institute the laws of apartheid. Suzman, who had joined the opposing United Party, became a member of Parliament in 1953. In 1959, she left the United Party to help found the Progressive Party (later renamed the Progressive Federal Party), which supported the elimination of apartheid.

Unlike the 11 like-minded liberal colleagues who had formed the Progressive Party with her, Suzman was re-elected to Parliament in 1961. For the next 13 years, she would stand alone in her views as the only anti-apartheid member of that body. In 1974, the Progressive Party managed to fill six additional seats in Parliament.

"I stand for simple justice, equal opportunity and human rights. The indispensable elements in a democratic society - and well worth fighting for."

For years, Suzman's voice spoke out in favor of peaceful change. Her 36 years in Parliament came to an end with her retirement in 1989.

Later Life

In 1991, Suzman became president of the South African Institute of Race Relations, a position she held until 1993. The Helen Suzman Foundation was formed in 1993 in order "to promote the values espoused by Helen Suzman throughout her public life and in her devotion to public service."

When South Africa held its first democratic elections in 1994, Suzman was a part of the Independent Electoral Commission, which watched over the electoral process. An active member of the statutory Human Rights Commission, she was present when Nelson Mandela signed South Africa's new constitution in 1996.

At the age of 91, Suzman passed away in her sleep on January 1, 2009, in Johannesburg, South Africa. She was survived by her two daughters, Frances and Patricia.

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