THE list of those who've spent a lifetime fighting racial injustice is short, unfortunately, but it certainly includes Helen Suzman. Mrs. Suzman is the steel-spined member of the South African Parliament who has just announced her retirement after 36 years of fighting apartheid. For 13 of those years, from 1961 to 1974, she was the lone liberal in a body dominated by the extremely conservative descendants of Dutch settlers. In addition to political artillery fire, she had to endure anti-Semitic and other personal attacks.
She not only endured, but gave as good as she got on the floor of Parliament and in the press. And she showed remarkable political and personal courage in fighting the degradation of racial separation, in pushing for investigation into the death in police custody of activist Steve Biko, in meeting with jailed African National Congress leader Nelson Mandela, in attending the funerals of slain black activists and protesters, and in much, much more.
She fought the forced relocation of South African blacks, pressed for an accounting of those held without trial, and helped save some sentenced to execution. And most of all, Mrs. Suzman instigated reform in South Africa, limited though it is, including an end to the abhorrent ``pass'' laws.
Suzman is not a knee-jerk liberal, however. The former economics professor did not approve of economic sanctions, which (in typical tart-tongued fashion) she called ``starvation policies against South Africa.'' And as more younger blacks became active protesters and as natural leaders emerged from their ranks, white progressives like Mrs. Suzman were seen as behind the times. Still, for years Suzman was a clear and firm voice in Pretoria for those who had no official voice.
South Africa still is one of the most repressive and undemocratic nations on Earth. Blacks are now able to form unions and some American and other firms have improved their treatment of non-white workers. But if anything, the wage gap between the nation's blacks and whites has gotten worse. The world today knows more about the lack of human rights for the vast majority there, however,and it is doing more about it. In large measure, we can thank Helen Suzman for that.