Helen Suzman

Awarded 2002

The 2002 Liberal International Prize for Freedom is awarded to Mrs Helen Suzman, the courageous champion of human rights, who in the dark days of apartheid did more than any other person to keep liberal values alive in South Africa.

Helen Suzman is no political demagogue, nor is she an armchair crusader. During her 36 years in parliament she was a politician and tenacious fighter for the causes in which she believed. She had a straightforward political creed:  hate bullies. I stand for simple justice, equal opportunity, and human rights. These are the indispensable elements in a democratic society and are well worth fighting for.

It was during her thirteen years from 1961 to 1974, when Helen Suzman was the lone representative of the liberal Progressive Party, that she faced the apartheid bullies head on. Alone she stood up against detention without trial; alone in parliament she spoke out against oppression, and alone she defended human rights and the rule of law.

When not busy with parliamentary duties she visited political prisoners and detainees, attended political trials, and investigated the conditions in squatter camps. She also investigated the suffering of those harassed under the pass laws and/or dispossessed of their homes and land.

Armed with first hand information she returned to the fray. Imposing, harassing, and badgering the apartheid ministers and bureaucrats, she succeeded in making a difference in the lives of many thousands of people.

Using parliament as a platform she demanded the attention of the apartheid rulers, captured the ear of the media, endured the vilification of the racial bigot, and earned the respect of the oppressed. She provided a role model for those who believed in liberal values as the basis for a just society.

After she retired from parliament she served as President of the South African Institute of Race Relations.

She was a member of the independent Electoral Commission that supervised South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994. She served as a member of the South African Human Rights Commission from 1995 to 1998.

As an individual she continued to speak out against injustice. She took up the cudgels on behalf of individuals who she believed were being unjustly treated. She campaigned against the reintroduction of the death penalty. She defended the right of woman to choose on the issue of abortion. She spoke out on the less popular issues such as decriminalisation of the use of cannabis.

Helen Suzman played a significant role in helping South Africa to transform from apartheid to a democratic state. Through her work and her example she contributed to the fact that the new South African constitution embraces important elements of liberal democracy.

As many countries in Africa move towards political systems based on democracy, human rights and the rule of law, the pioneering work that Helen Suzman did in the South Africa must not be underestimated.

Helen Suzman has proved that one person can make a difference.