HELEN SUZMAN, the civil rights campaigner who for 13 lonely years kept the torch of democracy burning in South Africa's whites-only Parliament, has long since earned a permanent place in the history books.
Reading her recently published memoirs, ``In No Uncertain Terms: A South African Memoir,'' one is reminded of her immense courage and endurance and of how easily her extraordinary contribution can be lost site of during an era of rapid transformation.
As Nelson Mandela writes in a foreword to the book, Suzman's memoirs relive a ``magnificent battle against apartheid.''
She survived three of Afrikaner nationalism's most formidable leaders - Prime Minister Hendrik Verwoerd, the architect of apartheid; John Vorster, the jackboot justice minister; and Pieter Botha, the irascible hawk. ``Verwoerd, Vorster, and Botha were as nasty a trio as you could encounter in your worst nightmares,'' she writes.
When Prime Minister Verwoerd was stabbed to death by a deranged parliamentary messenger in 1966, Botha turned on Suzman. ``He stopped opposite me,'' she writes,``shook his finger at me and yelled in Afrikaans: `It's you who did this. It's all you liberals. You incite people. Now we will get you. We will get the lot of you.' ''
Written in a simple and direct style, this is not the work of an arm-chair liberal. It is an odyssey of parliamentary and extra-parliamentary activism in pursuit of nonracialism, justice, and fair play.
``I took advantage of my status as an MP [member of parliament] to gain access to many places out of bounds to the general public, such as prisons, black townships and `resettlement areas' in the black rural homelands...,'' she writes. ``I put into practice my conviction that, to speak with authority, one must see for oneself.''
The reader cannot help but share Suzman's hurt at being continually branded as unpatriotic, subversive, and a traitor. To sit day after day in a hostile and male-dominated environment is a feat that must rank among the great political conquests in South African history.
Outside the parliamentary chamber, there was no refuge either. There she endured a constant stream of hate-mail, anti-Semitic jibes, surveillance of her private life, and the collective hostility of a white establishment that was unable - or unwilling -
to recognize the source of its guilt.
Suzman became the conscience of South Africa and the voice of the voiceless millions. She gave hope to a disenfranchised majority that sometimes appeared to be fighting against impossible odds.
She won the admiration of the international community with a stream of accolades that included 22 honorary doctorates and the honorary title of dame bestowed on her by the Queen of England.
But the sweeping changes now taking place in South Africa are the greatest tribute to her achievement.
``I do not claim any credit for the remarkable changes that have been introduced in South Africa over the last few years. I can only say, to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt, that I did what I could, where I was, with what I had.''
That is the greatness of Helen Suzman.