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Anti-Apartheid and Helen Suzman: Analytical Essay

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The word Apartheid is a South African word which means a system or policy of discrimination or segregations between different races, which is exactly what occurred in South Africa. The anti-apartheid movement took place in South Africa during the 20th Century between the South Africans, also known as the Khoi-San and the white settlers from Europe and the Netherland, also known as the Afrikaners. This time showed great discrimination and hardship for those of colour and made the Khoi-San people feel inferior to the Afrikaners even though they were the majority. There were many people who were Khoi-San and stood up for their own but only a few who stood up for the rights of the Khoi-San who were an Afrikaner. One of these people was Helen Suzman. Suzman was the only member of parliament representing the South African Progressive party for several years and she was a famous human rights activist. Suzman became a member of parliament in 1953 apart of the United party. In 1959, she became one of the founders of the progressive party (later known as the Progressive Federal Party). After many years it became clear the key factors on how Suzman contributed to the success of the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa, but it also became evident that she contributed to the failure as well. During this time, it was abhorred to aid the Khoi-San people and fight towards anti-apartheid. This made those around her to have very strong, different opinions about her and what she was doing.

Helen Suzman contributed to the success of the anti-apartheid movement by visiting the Khoi-San leaders who were in prison and standing up for their rights in parliament. Her endeavours began in the 1960s when new party, the Progressive Party, campaigned against the apartheid legislation. She was also a part of a group who opposed the economic sanctions because they feared it will affect the Khoi-San people more than it will the Afrikaners. The next major action she took against the apartheid was when she visited the prison on Robben Island where all the anti-apartheid movement leaders were being detained. She was inspired to go visit the island after reading an article. “I had read in the newspaper quite alarming reports about the harsh treatment the political prisoners were getting on Robben Island”[footnoteRef:1] By doing this she showed to the public that she was willing to make a change and fight for the rights of all people in South Africa. Through her help and activism, the prison on Robben Island had improved and those being held there were treated better. This is evident when she reported “Conditions had improved – not only through me I might add”[footnoteRef:2] It was very important during this time that Suzman had a seat in parliament as the parliament members were all Afrikaners and none of them spoke up for anti-apartheid except her. She was also very supportive of Nelson Mandela and trying to give him opportunities to have his voice and opinions heard by the government. “It is crazy for the government not to take advantage of his [Mandela’s] position of authority among blacks, authority which I believe he would use to the benefit of all South Africa. I believe Mr Mandela’s talents should be used before it is too late and far more radical elements take control of the ANC”[footnoteRef:3]. This evidence shows that Suzman knew who the leaders were for the Anti-Apartheid movement and what they had to offer to help the progress of change. Hence we can see that Helen Suzman contributed to the success of the anti-apartheid movement. [1: Ed. Hobday R. & Bowron C. (2006) Mandela: The authorised Portrait] [2: Ibid] [3: Bradley C. (1995) Causes & Consequences of the End of Apartheid]

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Even though Suzman contributed to the success, she also contributed to the failure by not fully fighting for liberation between the segregated sections of society. There were some that felt that Suzman did not wish for there to be full equality between the Khoi-San and the Afrikaners. This is evident when Joe Slovo, the chairperson of the South African Communist Party in 1983 said “Mrs Suzman and I may both be against apartheid but we are certainly not both for liberation”[footnoteRef:4] These words are supported when Suzman used her position of power to stop international financial aid to help the liberation movements in South Africa. This aid was offered from the World Council of Churches in 1970 and was around $2 million. Another way Suzman contributed to the failure of the anti-apartheid movement was by saying “I confine myself to the Whites only when I discuss this vote”[footnoteRef:5] when debating the issue of pensions and social welfare on a racial basis. It the 1973 Hansard record for this debate it shows that Suzman strongly pushed for this issue to be based solely on one’s race. A different example of Suzman contributing to the failure of the anti-apartheid movement was when her party limited the voting rights of the Khoi-San people by only allowing 1.5 million out of 15 million of them who had a maximum of seven years of schooling the right to vote. She was also found to be in support of many different controversial bills that limited the right of Khoi-San people. She defended this by saying they “represented a step in the right direction”[footnoteRef:6]. She believed that these bills were going to benefit the Khoi-San people, but others believed this was not the case. These are ways she contributed to the failure of the anti-apartheid movement. [4:] [5: ] [6: Ibid]

Many people had different views and opinions on Helen Suzman and what she was doing during this time. Some of these views were positive and supportive while others were not. Nelson Mandela was very supportive and had a positive view on Suzman and her work during the anti-apartheid movement. During his ‘Know your DA (Democratic Alliance)’ campaign while he was President he said, “Your courage, integrity and principled commitment to justice have marked you as one of the outstanding figures in the history of public life in South Africa.”[footnoteRef:7] This showed that many people were very supportive of all the work she did to help contribute to the success of the anti-apartheid. In 1971, the president of ANC wrote in his message to the ANC’s external mission about Suzman “clearly in favour of change – but determined to prevent change”[footnoteRef:8] This makes it evident that people saw she was contributing not only to the success but also the failure of the movement. These people who had similar views as he were in the middle of thinking that Suzman’s actions were positive or negative. The other type of opinion was that her actions were completely not helpful and that she should of not of been doing what she did. An example of this opinion is in the ANC 26 November 1970 statement “Suzman has neither the mandate nor authority to speak on behalf of oppressed masses of South Africa.”[footnoteRef:9] These are the three different ways the public and government reacted to Suzman’s actions. [7:] [8:] [9: Ibid]

Helen Suzman contributed to both the success of the anti-apartheid movement through her activism of the rights of the Khoi-San people and the failure through her not fully supporting the anti-apartheid in parliament and supporting bills that went against what she was fighting for. There were also many different opinions on her and what she was doing which helped to impact how the public viewed her. Through the help of Suzman and many others, the apartheid period ended on 27 April, 1994 when Nelson Mandela became President.


  1. Bradley, C. (1995). Causes & Consequences of the End of Apartheid. London, England: Evans Brothers Limited.
  2. Correspondent, M. (2019). Suzman was against apartheid, but she was not for liberation. [online] The M&G Online. Available at: [Accessed 11 Oct. 2019].
  3. Hayward, J. (1989). South Africa since 1948. England: Wayland Publishers Ltd.
  4. Hobday, R. and Bowron, C. (2006). Mandela: The Authorised Portrait. Auckland, New Zealand: The Five Mile Press Pty Ltd.
  5. (2019). Helen Suzman and apartheid – NEWS & ANALYSIS | Politicsweb. [online] Available at: [Accessed 9 Oct. 2019].
  6. (2019). Helen Suzman | South African History Online. [online] Available at: [Accessed 3 Oct. 2019].

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