- guardian.co.uk, Thursday 1 January 2009 13.42 GMT
Helen Suzman, who waged a lonely campaign against apartheid in South Africa’s parliament for more than a decade, has died at the age of 91.
Her daughter, Frances Jowell, said she died peacefully this morning at her home in Johannesburg, and a private funeral would take place this weekend.
Jowell added: “We are waiting for family and all grandchildren to arrive.”
For 13 years, from 1961 to 1974, Suzman was the sole representative in parliament of the liberal Progressive party, and her opposition to apartheid made her a thorn in the flesh of the National party government. She became known as a “cricket in the thorn tree” for her outspoken views.
She was regularly jeered in parliament with taunts such as “Go back to Moscow” or “Go back to Israel” – a reference to her Jewish family. Her arch-rival, President PW Botha, described her as “Mother Superior” in sarcastic reference to her attacks on the Nationalists.
The enmity was mutual. In a typical parliamentary exchange in which Botha warned her against breaking the law, she said: “I am not frightened of you. I never have been and I never will be. I think nothing of you.”
She once said of Botha: “If he was female he would arrive in parliament on a broomstick,” and described him as a “bad-tempered, irate debater and a bully”, after his death at the age of 90 in October 2006.
Suzman was born in Germiston, in South Africa’s Gauteng province, on 7 November 1917 to a Jewish Lithuanian immigrant couple, Samuel and Frieda Gavronsky. Her mother died two weeks later and her father remarried a few years afterwards.
Suzman matriculated in 1933 from Parktown Convent, Johannesburg, where a rose garden honouring “her lifelong struggle for justice and human rights for all South Africans” was unveiled in 2003.
A rose was also named after her later in her life. The Helen Suzman Rose (Foxy Lady) has baby pink buds unfolding to light pink-white flowers with a strong fragrance.
In recognition of her role Suzman received honorary doctorates from leading universities, including Oxford, Cambridge, Columbia, Harvard, Witwatersrand and Cape Town.
Suzman was twice nominated for the Nobel peace prize and for the chancellorship of the University of the Witwatersrand.
In 1978 she received the United Nations award for human rights, and she was honoured with an exhibition showcasing her life and work in film, print and photography at the South African Jewish Museum in March 2005.
Former South African president Nelson Mandela, whom Suzman visited on Robben Island during his imprisonment, has referred to her as “a remarkable South African woman”.
“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,” Mandela said in his autobiography Long Walk to Freedom.