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90-year-old Helen Suzman still tackles injustice

At 90, a South African is still tackling injustice, corruption and incompetence wherever she sees it.

For 13 years, Helen Suzman was the sole opposition lawmaker in South Africa's parliament, raising her voice time after time against the introduction of racist legislation.

As South Africa marked her 90th birthday, Suzman was cautiously optimistic in an interview Thursday about the future of the country whose history she has helped write. But, speaking at her Johannesburg home in a study filled with flowers from well-wishers, she noted that South Africa still had far to go.

"There is too much crime and too much unemployment and these things are very depressing," she said.

"Masses of black people are very disappointed with lack of delivery of housing, water and sanitation," she said, but quickly praising the post-apartheid government for achievements she does feel have been made, such as in economic policy.

She also expressed concern about the future of democracy in a country with little effective opposition to the African National Congress.

Whatever she might have felt about her foes when she was in parliament, they always engaged with her, she said.

"They had a respect for the role of the opposition. Unlike today," she said.

But Suzman stressed that South Africa today, without the racial discrimination and oppression of apartheid, is a far better place. She said personal relations across South Africa's racial divide have changed dramatically in her lifetime, and that she draws hope from that.

"There is more respect from whites to black. That has had a considerable effect."

Born in the mining town of Germiston east of Johannesburg to parents who had fled anti-Semitism in Russia, Suzman's childhood was the charmed one of most whites - tennis, swimming lessons and private schooling.

It was only when she got to university and studied the laws that were being put in place to govern black people that she says she was "roused to the discrimination."

From then on she began to speak out against the conditions under which black people were forced to live, their lack of job opportunities and especially the dreaded pass system which restricted their movement. Her greatest achievement was helping to ensure that the pass laws were abolished.

She was elected to parliament in 1953 for General Jan Smuts' United Party. A few years later she helped formed the liberal democratic Progressive Party, a later reincarnation of which is still the official opposition. A snap election in 1961 devastated the party, leaving Suzman on her own until 1974. She kept her seat until she retired in 1989.

"I had a wonderful opportunity to use the parliamentary stage to bring the world's attention to what was going on," she said, a slight, upright figure, her dogs asleep on her lap.

Stories of Suzman butting heads with some of the architects of apartheid are legendary and she retells them with relish.

"I do not know," she once told Parliament in a dulcet tone dripping acid, "why we equate - and with the examples before us - a white skin with civilization."

Her passion and her dedication took her places few other white South Africans dared to go.

She attended the funeral of Steve Biko, the slain leader of the Black Consciousness Movement in 1977 and was one of the first people to visit ANC leader Nelson Mandela when he was incarcerated on Robben Island.

Now photos of Mandela, who was elected South Africa's first black president in the all-race vote that ended apartheid in 1994, decorate her study along with those of family and other friends.

"Helen has set a great example to all of us on how to advance with age, without retreating," Mandela said in a birthday tribute. "Her courage, integrity and principled commitment to justice have marked her as one of the outstanding figures of our history."

Suzman still reads four newspapers every morning. After 36 years, habit has become a way of life and she still sees herself as champion of causes from press freedom to the legalization of marijuana.

"The great thing about my life is that is has never been boring - long, interesting, maddening at times but never boring," she said, raising her arms in a victory gesture.