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Helen Suzman, leading anti-apartheid figure, dies at 91

Video by Nadia CHARBIT

Latest update : 2009-01-02

The lone member of parliament in racist South Africa to oppose the apartheid regime, Helen Suzman died peacefully at her home in Johannesburg, aged 91. She was a ardent critic of the post-apartheid ANC regime.

AFP - Leading South African anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman, who for decades served as a lone voice of parliamentary dissent against white minority rule, died Thursday at the age of 91, the SAPA news agency said quoting her daughter.

Suzman, who served in the legislature between 1953 and 1989, died peacefully at her home in Johannesburg in the morning, her daughter Frances Jowell said.

"We are waiting for family and all grandchildren to arrive," Jowell said, adding that a private funeral would be held over the weekend.

The feisty Suzman, the first lawmaker to visit Nelson Mandela in jail during his long incarceration, was however critical of the post-apartheid African National Congress government on fighting AIDS, crime and unemployment.

She had also stirred controversy by alleging that the ANC, in charge since the demise of apartheid in 1994, had airbrushed the role of white liberals in the struggle against whites-only rule.

Suzman was born in the mining town of Germiston east of Johannesburg on November 7, 1917 to Samuel and Frieda Gavronsky, both Jewish immigrants from Lithuania.

She was raised in a fairly comfortable background thanks to her father's flourishing business, attending an elite convent in Johannesburg and later studying at the prestigious Witswatersrand University.

A sensitivity to the evils of discrimination, which the Helen Suzman Foundation said came from her Jewish background, became a hallmark of her political career with her 1953 election from the tony and Jewish-dominated Johannesburg suburb of Houghton.

Branded by apartheid-era leader P.W. Botha as a "vicious little cat", the diminutive Suzman drew grudging respect from critics -- with one saying she had "steel in her teeth".

Suzman's repartee was also legendary.

An apartheid minister once told her in parliament: "You put these questions just to embarrass South Africa overseas," to which she replied: "It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa, it is your answers."

Suzman also became in her own words an "honorary ombudsman for all those people who have no vote and no MP.

"They write to me in their hundreds, asking for help over pass problems, housing problems, jobs, bursaries, trading licences... I get dozens of pathetic letters that are smuggled out of jail, and many appeals for help from banned people.

"Sometimes I manage to get conditions alleviated, often not."

But Suzman did not spare the leaders of the new Rainbow Nation.

In a 2007 interview for her 90th birthday, she told AFP: "It is both a pleasure getting rid of apartheid but not very satisfactory in what has replaced it.

"The education system is shocking ... and the hospitals are a disgrace," she said.

Date created : 2009-01-02