By Vivian Attwood and Sapa

South African flags will fly at half-mast on Sunday in honour of anti-apartheid veteran Helen Suzman.

This mark of respect was announced by President Kgalema Motlanthe, who said South Africans of all persuasions should honour her and show appreciation of her contribution to the building of a democratic society.

Suzman, 91, died in Johannesburg on New Year's Day.

She earned her place in South Africa's political history through her persistent and courageous opposition to the inhumane system of apartheid, said Motlanthe.

"At a time when the apartheid government sought a blackout on critical and independent views about the inhumanities inflicted on millions of South Africans, it was Suzman who stood out as one of the few remaining voices of reason in the darkest days of our country's history."

A 50-year comrade in liberal politics, Ray Swart of Durban, said his friend had been excited at the recent shake-up in South African politics and was keenly awaiting the general election in a few months.

"Just last week we were chatting and she expressed her excitement that there was new blood in the political arena."

Referring to the formation of the ANC breakaway party, Cope, she told him: "The election is going to be an exciting time. I hope I am here to share in it."

Swart said: "Helen had been infirm for some time, and in a wheelchair, which irritated her. Her spirit was indomitable. She was a truly remarkable lady with a finely honed mind. Helen performed a tremendous historic function in the South African parliament in the years when she was there as the lone person who upheld those beliefs.

"I remember her also as someone with an acute sense of humour. She was not a bluestocking at all, but huge fun. She was very critical always of anyone who used a bad argument in support of their beliefs, whichever side they were on. There was an extraordinary degree of honesty and directness in all she did.

"Helen fought apartheid with her every fibre. She knew it could not prevail indefinitely. At times we all wondered how we were going to dismantle it, but we never lost sight of the belief that democracy would some day materialise, and give a voice to the millions who were voiceless."

The head of the DA in KwaZulu-Natal, Mike Ellis MP, described Suzman as the doyenne of liberal democracy in South Africa.

"Working with her, I learned so much. It was a great honour. Something she impressed on young politicians was that if you were to achieve anything, you had to go and examine the facts yourself. Hence her visits to Mandela and other prisoners, which she termed 'on-site inspections'.

"She was exceptionally critical of those who did not pull their weight, and loathed many National Party politicians who were dragging our country towards the abyss. Thanks to people like her, we did not disappear into it."

IFP leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi expressed deep sadness at Suzman's death.

"To many people she has been an icon in the struggle and probably the most unsung heroine of the struggle. The role she played as a loner in the horde of racists can never be forgotten.

"When God made Helen... He broke the mould," he said.

Former president Thabo Mbeki and his wife, Zanele, wrote to the Suzman family: "We celebrate an eminent South African patriot who dedicated so many of her years to the struggle to end the apartheid system and secure freedom for all South Africans.

"... Our country and people will always honour Helen as one of the leading midwives of the democracy we enjoy today, and which we must continue to defend, as she did."