'We're terribly lucky to have such a great man'

SOUTH Africa has produced some doughty seventysomethings - none more so than Nelson Mandela and Helen Suzman, 76 and eight months his senior.

Mrs Suzman's week has been as busy as Mr Mandela's. She spent most of Tuesday in prisons. On Wednesday and Thursday, between trying to sort out the general electoral shambles, she visited polling stations in Soweto, Katlehong and elsewhere. On Friday she did more of the same, while dealing with the emotional and practical difficulties generated by the death of her driver and servant of 61 years.

After 36 years standing up in parliament to the bullies of apartheid, she retired from politics in 1989, and did what famous people are supposed to do in the autumn of their lives: wrote her memoirs. Then, last December, she accepted an offer to become one of the 11 wise men and women heading the Independent Electoral Commission (IEC).

'To tell you the truth, I was flattered into it,' she said yesterday. 'Both the government and the ANC said it was terribly important I should be there. But I must tell you, it's been a pretty daunting task.'

The 11 IEC commissioners have been monitoring the campaign, administering and monitoring the voting process, adjudicating between parties and, critically, ruling whether the election has been 'substantially free and fair'.

Mrs Suzman's driver died of a heart attack at 7.20 on Friday morning. Perhaps he died happy - at least he had lived to see the great election day. But the old South Africa continued to assert itself.

'In the middle of all the sorrow and confusion - would you believe it? - the police turned up in an armoured vehicle. They seemed to think there had been a murder at my house. 'Thank God they killed the old bitch,' they probably thought. Heavens] What a day]'

Yesterday she was aiming to spend locked up with her fellow commissioners, assessing the 'free and fair' question. She was confident everything would eventually turn out fine.

But what about the fiasco of the missing ballot papers, the delays it generated in the polling, the fears some parties were expressing of electoral fraud?

'Look, one can't discount the possibility of fraud. But it would be only a small minority of the polls.

''The main problem concerned the miscalculation of numbers. Clearly the census figures we received were inaccurate. No one, for example, has done a proper census of the squatter camps on the peripheries of our cities.

'It was not a problem of not having enough ballot papers - we had 80 million] - but in their distribution. Also in terms of logistics, we had terrible problems.'

The last hitch that had to be resolved before the elections was what to do about the prison population. The government was against them being allowed to vote, the ANC in favour.

The compromise was that the worst offenders were barred, and the rest voted. 'I'd have preferred all or nothing myself,' said Mrs Suzman. 'I'd have gone for nothing, quite frankly. I'm a reactionary old bat, really.

'But then, of course, it was me who had to go into the prisons to explain that it was not the prison authorities who had made the decision.'

The authorities feared that there might be prison riots - so the tiny, but far from frail, Mrs Suzman found herself standing in the yard at Pretoria Central prison on Tuesday morning, then at Johannesburg prison in the afternoon, explaining to a group of murderers, rapists and armed robbers why they had been excluded from the party. 'It was a tricky thing to have to do, but I wasn't ill at ease at all. I'm used to prisons. I've been visiting them for years.'

She visited Mr Mandela on Robben Island for the first time in 1967, then three times subsequently. They have become good friends in recent years, and she sat next to him, the most favoured of 600 guests, at his 75th birthday bash last July.

'To my mind, one of the most astonishing features of this period is the remarkable goodwill we've seen in negotiations. A lot of that should be attributed to the generosity of spirit and amazing ability to relate to other people of Nelson Mandela. He's a great, great, great man.

'We're terribly lucky, we South Africans, to have such a man at a moment like this in our history.'

And how does she feel about the 'new' National Party, after all that time battling with the Nats in parliament? 'There are moments of irony when I see the bland National Party candidates assuring us they really were against apartheid all those years. They didn't seemingly know the misery they were causing.

'I had to laugh: there was an ad in the papers which said, 'The National Party did in four years what Helen Suzman couldn't accomplish in 36.' Then at the bottom, it said, 'You need more than a loud voice.' Really] I mean, there I was, little me, against all those men all those years in parliament, and now they say that] It's a bit rich, but I laughed. How funny]'

Had the week's events not been the consummation of all she had fought for? 'Of course. It's been absolutely wonderful. But also I feel a great sense of sadness that we had to go through this whole terrible period of apartheid, with the most blatant injustice and oppression. What a different country we'd have by now, had the tragic election of 1948 come up with a different result.'

Mrs Suzman believes South Africa now has a chance to become a model of race relations for the world. 'We need the economy to do well. We need foreign investment. But if we get that, there is still the most remarkable fund of goodheartedness among our black people.

'Often in America I feel more hostility in the streets. I don't know what the reason is, really, but black people here are basically nice people - much nicer than the white people.'

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