Wednesday, Dec. 16, 2009

Helen Suzman

One night, during a South African parliamentary debate in the 1980s, P.W. Botha, the Prime Minister known as the Great Crocodile, began a speech by growling, "The honorable member from Houghton, it is well known, does not like me." The honorable member from Houghton rose to her full 5 ft. 2 in. and said, "Like you? I cannot stand you." For nearly 40 years — 13 of them as the lone antiapartheid member of Parliament — Helen Suzman spoke acid truth to brute power. The daughter of Lithuanian immigrants, she was a fierce sprite of a woman but a moral giant. In 1967, Suzman was the first woman to visit Nelson Mandela in his cramped cell on Robben Island and became his champion. Almost 25 years later, when he was just out of prison, I saw her jab her finger into his chest and say, "Young man, you must slow down." He laughed and enveloped her in a great bear hug.

—Richard Stengel

Stengel is the editor of TIME and author of the forthcoming memoir Mandela's Way