Helen Gavronsky was born to Lithuanian Jewish immigrant parents near Johannesburg in 1917. She married Moses Suzman in 1937 and had two daughters. Later she returned to the University of the Witwatersrand to complete her B.A. Then she was hired as a lecturer in economic history. The United Party invited her to run for a seat in Houghton, a northern suburb of Johannesburg, in 1952. With the support of her husband, she successfully ran for the seat, which required her absence from her family while residing in Cape Town half a year. In parliament Suzman was a proponent of racial equality, South Africa's return to the commonwealth, rule of law, and the administration of justice. During her tenure in parliament she visited prisons, townships, and "resettlement areas" in the rural homelands. She was in parliament when Hendrik Verwoerd was assassinated and visited Nelson Mandela on Robben Island and in Pollsmoor Prison.
Often at odds with the United Party over apartheid legislation, she formed the Progressive Party in 1959 and became its sole representative. After fourteen years, six colleagues joined her in 1974. Although it was unpopular to participate in an increasingly oppressive apartheid parliament, Suzman was a vigorous advocate of racial equality. Despite their admiration, many black South Africans were critical of her antisanctions stance in the 1980s.
Suzman received many international honors, including honorary degrees from Oxford, Cambridge, and Harvard; the United Nations Human Rights Award (1978) and Medallion of Heroism (1980); and the Liberal International Prize for Freedom (2002). Suzman left parliament in 1989 but continued her activities in the Helen Suzman Foundation, which is devoted to liberal causes.
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