Helen Suzman, who has died aged 91, earned worldwide fame during the 13 years in which she sat as South Africa's lone Progressive MP, the sole voice in the all-white parliament to oppose apartheid root and branch.
The child of prosperous Lithuanian Jewish immigrants, she had married Moses Suzman, a successful neurologist, had two daughters and lectured at the University of the Witswatersrand, before she became an opposition United party MP for Houghton in 1953. Houghton was at once the richest, the most Jewish and the most liberal constituency in the country but the UP, shocked by the victories of the Afrikaner Nationalists in the 1948 and 1953 elections was trying hard to convince the electorate that it was no less committed to white supremacy than the Nats. Helen was increasingly uncomfortable in the party and it was at her house that another 10 UP MPs gathered in August 1959 to plan the breakaway Progressive party, committed to non-racialism.
Even decades later Helen never lost her admiration for some of her colleagues then from less blue chip seats than her own who sacrificed their careers for sheer principle. In the 1961 election she alone held her seat – by a bare 500 votes.
For the next 13 years – the very height of apartheid and a period in which each year brought more repressive legislation – she was the lone but hugely energetic voice of opposition, savaging the government's laws for detention without trial and was far more outspoken than anyone else in exposing police torture, abuses in prisons, and the general cruelty and irrationality of apartheid. She had a firm grasp of parliamentary procedure, an energetic research team backing her up, a sharp sense of humour and an even sharper tongue in debate. She was utterly loathed by the Nats. When she was re-elected in 1961 Hendrik Frensch Verwoerd warned Jewish South Africans that their behaviour "has not gone unnoticed" and when she got up to speak in the house she was often greeted by such pleasantries as "Karl Marx was also a Jew!" No one hated her more than the later president, PW Botha, who regarded her as a hell-cat and even accused her of responsibility for Verwoerd's assassination.
Perfectly aware that many of her Nat opponents, including the prime minister, BJ Vorster, had been keen pro-Nazis in the war, she was wholly unafraid and unabashed. Hendrik Van den Berg, one of these pro-Nazis, became head of the much-feared security police. She called him "South Africa's very own Heinrich Himmler" and told Vorster, who was even more feared, that he should visit his constituency "heavily disguised as a human being". Many Jews were proud of her but not a few quailed at what she might be provoking.
Suzman took it upon herself to defend the whole range of apartheid's opponents, including the jailed Mandela, making it clear that she did not necessarily agree with them but that in a democracy their voice had to be heard. She also gave heart to Mandela and other prisoners on Robben Island by frequently visiting them, making a huge fuss about their lamentable conditions and achieving a large improvement in them. She completely won Mandela's heart and they remained devoted friends to the end. Her happiness when he was released was almost tangible and he gathered her up in a huge hug. He didn't like her liberal critique of his ANC but nothing could seriously disturb his affection for her.
Helen was hugely encouraged by her reinforcement by the growing Progs but she was an instinctive loner, not a team player and never became party leader. Moreover, as the anti-apartheid struggle intensified the pro-ANC left became increasingly critical of her liberal stance. Most particularly, she fiercely opposed economic sanctions, believing both that they would hurt mainly the poor and that in any case economic growth was one of the main forces working against apartheid. Inevitably, the left attacked her as a racist for refusing to do as they wished but Mandela's attitude towards her, once he was released, made it clear how ridiculous this had always been. But, typically, she was as unabashed by black racism as she was by white racism: she was a liberal through and through, never felt she had to apologise for herself and kept on doing the best she could. After 36 years her parliamentary career ended with her resignation in 1989, just as apartheid was about to collapse.
She happily greeted De Klerk's decision to abandon apartheid in 1990 and was delighted to welcome South African democracy in 1994. Her friendship with Mandela initially made her very unwilling to criticise the ANC government but she became increasingly disillusioned, vocally so once Mbeki succeeded Mandela and proceeded to support Mugabe and become an Aids denialist. She made no secret of the fact that she felt bitterly disappointed by this turn of events but never regretted her opposition to apartheid. Twice nominated for the Nobel peace prize, the recipient of 25 honorary degrees and an honorary DBE from the Queen, she never ceased to be a feisty and irreverent presence. She leaves a gap in South African society which will not be easily filled.