THE Bulletin's obituary of Helen Suzman yesterday showed both what a remarkable woman she was and what an indispensable role she played in South Africa's slow and reluctant progress to racial equality. It also pointed out that she never received the Nobel Peace Prize although she was twice nominated for it. This was a curious oversight by the Nobel Peace Prize judges because it is possible to argue that if Suzman had not kept alive the open criticism of apartheid governments for thirty years between 1959 and 1989 the ultimate peaceful transition to a multi-racial society would have been pre-empted by violent change. For six years of those years she was the only woman among 165 MPs in the South African parliament and for long periods she was the only representative of the Progressive Party that she founded in 1959. In a tribute to Suzman, Peter Hain MP said, “She was one of the very few voices of protest when so many others had been silenced.” She fought three successive apartheid prime ministers - Hendrik Verwoerd, John Vorster and P W Botha - with persistent questioning and ready wit. When one angry minister accused her of embarrassing South Africa overseas with her questions, she replied, “It is not my questions that embarrass South Africa, it is your answers.” She used her parliamentary privilege to visit black townships and slums and she insisted on seeing conditions on Robben Island where she met Nelson Mandela, beginning a friendship that blossomed when his release came after eighteen years imprisonment.


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