Heroine of the struggle against apartheid celebrates 90th birthday

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The Independent Online

For almost 30 years, she was a near lone white voice against apartheid and, yesterday, Helen Suzman was inundated with best wishes on her 90th birthday.

The former president Nelson Mandela, 89, congratulated the former MP, who was the first parliamentarian to visit him in prison. "It needs not for us or anyone to sing Helen's praises: her place is ensured in the history of this country," he said.

"Her courage, integrity and principled commitment to justice have marked her as one of the outstanding figures in the history of public life in South Africa."

Despite her advancing years, Mrs Suzman maintains a sharp mind on current affairs and a waspish sense of humour. In an interview from her home in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg yesterday, Mrs Suzman said: "It's impossible to ignore politics because it's always in the newspapers. I like to keep informed about what's happening."

Mrs Suzman was elected to parliament as a member of the United Party in 1953. In 1959 she moved to the Progressive Party, representing the Houghton constituency, and from 1961 to 1974 she was its only representative in parliament.

The party was later renamed the Progressive Federal Party and she was joined by six colleagues in 1974, but it was Mrs Suzman who stood out as a thorn in the government's side when members of the opposition ANC were either imprisoned or exiled.

Her opposition to apartheid earned her the accolade the "cricket in the thorn tree". She stepped down in 1989 after 36 years in parliament.

But far from wanting to talk about the past, Mrs Suzman was keen to talk about the future and the impending ANC leadership election. "I think Cyril Ramaphosa would be a good leader of the party and the country. He understands market economics, he's not left wing and he's not right wing – he's a moderate man," she said.

"I haven't spoken to him for quite some time, but we were in regular contact many years ago when he was head of the mine workers union and I was involved in the Vaal reef mine accident. He had a good grasp of the issues and was an intelligent man. He listened and gave a considered view, which is what our country needs at the moment."

Mrs Suzman, the daughter of Lithuanian-Jewish immigrants, said the biggest threat to the country was crime and unemployment. "There are too many people without work, which is not a good thing. It's okay for people like me who have enough money and live a contented life. White people, generally, are doing okay, but there are a lot of rich black people too and too many people with nothing. We're creating an underclass," she argued.

Mrs Suzman said she was also concerned about the Aids crisis in South Africa: "We need to improve state hospitals and deal with the Aids pandemic. We have to face up to it, not ignore it."

She also felt let down, she said, by the attitude of Thabo Mbeki's government towards the President of neighbouring Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe. "I am disappointed about our relationship with him. There may not be much we can do in practical terms, but we can at least voice our disapproval of what he's doing in there. We owe that to the people who are suffering in Zimbabwe," she said.

When asked if she was optimistic for the future of South Africa, Mrs Suzman said she was "hopeful".

Neither of her daughters followed her into politics. Frances became an art historian and Patricia, a doctor. "They always supported me in my career but they did not enter politics, they just didn't show enough interest in it," she explained.

She said she never felt lonely during her career, despite the constant travelling between parliament in Cape Town and her home in Johannesburg, where she lived with her doctor husband, Mosie. He died in 1994. "I had advisers, a really good researcher, Jackie, legal support, political analysts and an adviser on gender issues – so no, I didn't feel alone. I had friends in Cape Town and I'd fly home every second week," she said.

Others paying tribute included the veteran Zulu leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi. "When God made Helen, He, to use a well-worn metaphor, broke the mould. We won't see the likes of her again for a long time," Mr Buthelezi said.

Mrs Suzman laughed when asked if she had any more ambitions. "I'm 90, you know, what else can I do? I just want to spend the rest of my years living here peacefully," she said.

Last night she celebrated her birthday with a cocktail party at her home.