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Anti-Apartheid Activist Helen Suzman Dies at 91


One of South Africa's leading white anti-apartheid activists, Helen Suzman, has died at the age of 91. For years during the apartheid era, Suzman was the lone anti-apartheid voice in parliament.
South African anti-apartheid politician Helen Suzman died Thursday in her sleep at the age of 91. For years she denounced apartheid from her position as the lone member of parliament from the Progressive Party.

Nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize, the frail-looking, but feisty, Suzman took advantage of her parliamentary seat to ask hard questions of the apartheid-era government ministers.

Accused by one of these of seeking to embarrass South Africa, she once replied that it was not her questions that embarrassed South Africa but the government's answers.

Anti-apartheid icons such as former President Nelson Mandela remembered her as the only woman to visit them in prison on Robben Island.

Yet in later years Suzman criticized the ruling African National Congress for spending lavishly on arms and official functions, while failing to devote enough resources to education and housing. This led a BBC television interviewer several years ago to ask her if she believed South Africa could fail.

"I do not think it [South Africa] can fail," Suzman said. "But I think the parliamentary system may change. The electoral system may change. There have been too many statements made by higher-ups in the ANC about wanting to control all the levers of power. I do not like expressions like that."

Born in 1917 in Germiston, near Johannesburg, to Jewish parents of Lithuanian origin, Suzman was raised in comfortable surroundings and attended private local schools.

But in university she began speaking out against the conditions under which black South Africans were forced to live, and in particular the pass laws that restricted their movements.

She was elected to parliament in 1953 under the United Party of General Jan Smuts, but left it to help form the more liberal Progressive Party.

A snap election in 1961 left her as the party's only parliament member, a position she occupied for 13 years. She retired in 1989 as negotiations were beginning that eventually would lead to the end of apartheid.

Winner of numerous international awards, Suzman was mourned by the Nelson Mandela Foundation, which said South Africa had lost a great patriot and a fearless fighter against apartheid.

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