Anti-apartheid campaigner Helen Suzman dies

Helen Suzman, for decades South Africa's most famous white crusader against apartheid, died on Thursday at the age of 91.

Anti-apartheid campaigner Helen Suzman dies
Helen Suzman, for decades South Africa's most famous white crusader against apartheid, died on Thursday at the age of 91.

The daughter of Jewish immigrants waged an often lonely parliamentary battle to enfranchise the black majority.

She became one of the few whites to earn respect from black South Africans when she started making regular visits to Nelson Mandela, the black nationalist leader sentenced to life imprisonment in 1964.

The Nelson Mandela Foundation said South Africa had lost a "great patriot and a fearless fighter against apartheid".

SAPA news agency quoted her daughter Frances Jowell as saying Suzman died peacefully in her Johannesburg home.

Recalling Suzman's first visit to B-Section of Robben Island prison in 1967, Mandela once said: "It was an odd and wonderful sight to see this courageous woman peering into our cells and strolling around our courtyard. She was the first and only woman ever to grace our cells."

Suzman and Mandela, who was released from prison in 1990, became close friends after he was elected South Africa's first black president in 1994.

"Suzman became a thorn in the flesh of apartheid by openly criticising segregation of blacks by a whites-only apartheid system," said the ruling African National Congress (ANC), which helped to end apartheid.

Despite the end of apartheid rule, there are still glaring reminders of the repression it stood for.

Millions of blacks deprived of economic opportunities during apartheid still live in poverty in grim townships.

And the ANC has been shaken by power struggles that have overshadowed the fight against poverty, rampant crime and AIDS.


Persistent campaigner

Suzman was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize and won praise from human rights organisations from around the world for her crusade against apartheid.

The Helen Suzman Foundation said she "shone the bright light of truth in every nook and cranny of our beloved country's tortured past with commitment and fortitude".

The frail-looking champion of non-white rights was the longest-serving member of the country's white parliament.

She would ask 200 questions in a typical parliament session, said Suzman's foundation in a profile of her on its website.

"Helen's persistent, well-reasoned arguments must have acted like a kind of Chinese water-torture on her parliamentary opponents," it said.

A member of the liberal Progressive Federal Party for much of her career, she was regularly jeered in parliament with taunts such as "Go back to Moscow" or "Go back to Israel" -- a reference to her Jewish heritage.

Her arch-foe President P.W. Botha dubbed her "Mother Superior" in sarcastic reference to her scolding attacks on the Nationalists.

The enmity was mutual. In one parliamentary exchange in which Botha warned her against breaking the law, she told him:

"I am not frightened of you. I never have been and I never will be. I think nothing of you."

Suzman retired in 1989 but remained outspoken, criticising the post-apartheid ANC's performance on issues such as unemployment and corruption and expressing concern over "affirmative action" driving skilled whites out of the country.

She took a tough line on Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe.

"A perverse 'honour', of which she is inordinately proud, was being declared an 'Enemy of the State' by Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe in 2001," said her foundation.

Reuters
Last Mod: 02 Ocak 2009, 13:22
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