A minor 135 votes. In the event that 135 voters didn’t draw their crosses behind the Democratic Party (DP) in the Western Cape in the 1999 race, Helen Zille would most likely not have been a permanent piece of South African legislative issues in the course of two decades.
Zille on Friday spoke to News24 about her career in a reception room in 7 Wale Street, just outside the office of the Western Cape premier, which she has occupied for the past 10 years, soon to be evacuated.
“I was an accidental politician. I never intended to go into representative politics,” Zille prefaces her story. “But I was the chair of a governing body of my children’s primary school. And in that capacity, I’d been very involved in engaging with the lawmaking process over the new South African Schools Act.
“The first thing the national government did, the new democratic government, was to break its own law. So we got together, about 80 other schools, and we took the government to court, and we won the court case.”
Former journalist Zille, who famously broke the story of Steve Biko’s death, wrote a lot about education policy at the time, and then DP leader Tony Leon took note. He asked Zille to take a look at the party’s education policy.
“I redrafted the policy for the party, and then Tony asked me to stand, or to put my hat in the ring to compete for a position on the DP’s list.
“I put my hat in the ring, I competed, I didn’t expect to end up in an electable position, because at the outside the DP was only going to get five or six seats in the Western Cape. So it was a real outside chance given the competition there was.
“But I was lucky enough to end up as number five on the DP’s list. And I got elected on just 135 votes on the remainder.
“If that didn’t happen, I wouldn’t have been in politics today.”
Zille was then appointed Western Cape MEC for Education, and then, in 2001, after the New National Party left the Democratic Alliance (DA) to join forces with the ANC, became the leader of the opposition in the legislature. In 2004 she became a member of Parliament and 2006 mayor of Cape Town. In 2007 she took over the reins from Leon in leading the DA. In 2009 she started her first term as premier.
Starting her career in politics in 1999, Zille didn’t foresee this trajectory.
“At that stage of my life, I was a mom, on a governing body of a school, working in communications in the University of Cape Town. And I thought it would be an outside chance that I would get elected, let alone be the Western Cape minister of education. After that the leader of the opposition in the Western Cape legislature, progressing to an MP, mayor, party leader and then premier. If you were sketching that trajectory, I would think you were smoking something very, very potent.”
Zille says being a “natural risk-taker” enabled her to take these career developments in her stride.
“I don’t mind taking risks, quite big risks. I’ll never take risks with my children or people that are precious to me. But in my career and other things, I’m quite prepared to take quite big risks. And I love a challenge. I love what appears to be an insurmountable challenge.
“And I love taking on new things. I don’t like being bored. So in a sense, I was thinking ‘well, this is something I’ll take on’. I’m very good at walking through doors that open, even if they only open a tiny little bit,” she says with a small chuckle. “And I like to try and get through them.”
After the 2006 municipal elections, Zille led a coalition government in Cape Town – a very complicated situation.
“The ID and the ANC missed being able to create a governing coalition I think by one or two votes. But we were able to put together a governing coalition with 6 other parties – tiny parties, most of them only had one representative in the whole of the council. And on the basis of that one individual, they held the balance of power. So it was an extraordinary situation, any single individual representing one those parties could bring down the government. And holding that together was a challenge.”
As if keeping a complicated coalition wasn’t enough, Zille also had to deal with some skulduggery to bring the frail government to a fall.
“I must say when I entered politics I was very naive. And in many ways, I have not lost that naivety. I’m surprised every time when someone tries to manipulate or when things are not what they seem to be and I uncover some devious plot underneath the surface. It still shocks me and surprises me every, single time.
“But the ANC has never been taken out of a seat of government before. 2006 was the first time they had been in government and they had been taken out in an election, and they didn’t like it. They really believed that the electorate made a serious mistake. And they looked at every legal mechanism – changing the form of government in Cape Town, putting us under administration, the commission of inquiry, doing everything they could to bring us down. Including, trying to promise various of our coalition partners a better deal with them.
“They hit their mark with Badih Chabaan , who wanted to be in charge of the tenders and contracts for the 2010 World Cup. And I knew exactly what he wanted to do with those tenders and contracts, so I wouldn’t let him anywhere near them. And then he decided that he was going to cross the floor to the ANC because the ANC would be more amenable to what he was doing. So those were the kind of Machiavellian machinations that were happening behind the scenes. And it took me completely by surprise.”
After becoming DA leader in 2007, Zille made probably her most far-reaching impact on the South African political landscape – under her leadership, the DA was transformed from a party mostly focused on being an opposition to a party offering an alternative government.
“My overall goal is to contribute to South Africa becoming a consolidated and established democracy. That is what I want to achieve. And we can’t do that unless we are attractive to people across the spectrum of diversity. We have to draw people of all races, of all religions, to one party that believes in one South Africa for all and believes in defending each other’s rights through the law under constitutionalism, who believes that the state should be independent of political parties and who believe that the rule of law and the culture of accountability has to govern the culture of the way people interact with each other in society. Those are the core beliefs which I call blue beliefs.
“And we had to start building a new majority for those principles, which meant we had to draw in people of all backgrounds, of all races, of all cultures of all languages of all religions. And I put my mind to doing that. Because if we couldn’t do that, we couldn’t have a democracy in South Africa. Because you cannot have a democracy unless governments can change hands through the ballot box. And if parties are based on racial entities you are never going to have a change of governing party through the ballot box. So we had to move in that direction. And I put all my effort into doing so.”
Despite the sharp growth while Zille was at the helm, current polling suggests that the DA might plateau as the dust settles after the May 8 elections.
“I think the DA should boldly stand by its values and its vision, and not be too sensitive about what its critics say. Its critics are always going to throw stones.
“We also have a terrible disadvantage now with this awful racial identity politics dominating the so-called progressive political space when it is actually highly retrogressive. And in that context, we must be far braver and bolder to stand up for our core beliefs. We mustn’t pander to our opponents, we must be far more interested in standing up for our supporters and what we believe.”
As party leader, Zille was the face of the DA’s campaigning in the 2009 elections, and as it turned out also the voice, and the dancing cheerleader, with the song “Koekie Loekie” being her trademark in contrast to then ANC president Jacob Zuma’s “Umshini Wam”.
“Well, I have many facets to my personality. I can be very serious, I can be very frivolous. I love dancing and singing and fooling around, I love having a serious debate with someone,” Zille responds to the question of whether taking on the singing, dancing role was out of character.
“And singing Koekie Loekie was a lekker jol. I mean, the words weren’t too great. When I worked out what the words meant, I got a bit nervous, but at that stage, it was too late and everyone was calling me Koekie on the Cape Flats. So I was Koekie Loekie then.”
In the run-up to the 2009 election, it looked like the DA would be in a position to form a coalition government in the Western Cape, taking the province from the ANC. As it turned out, and much to Zille’s delight, the DA obtained an outright majority in the province.
“It’s easier to be premier than to be mayor. It is a lot easier.”
“When you’re the mayor, the issues are so direct in people’s everyday lives, and so many things can potentially go wrong, and everyone turns to the mayor, even if they have a family crisis. I often remember being phoned at odd hours in the night. Once at about one o’clock, the phone rang and it was a lady having a fight with her husband. And of course, by the time I finished talking to her, my own husband was awake and sitting up in bed. And he said: who was that? And I said: Don’t worry it’s just someone having a fight with her spouse, and my husband said: ‘I wish when I had a fight with my spouse I could also phone the mayor’,” Zille says with a hint of amusement in her voice.
“So the bottom line is, everyone phones the mayor, which I don’t mind, because you know I won by a very few votes, so you think that’s the vote and you are very accountable in those kinds of circumstances.”
While Zille is the first Western Cape premier to survive the “curse of Leeuwenhof” and serve two full terms as premier, it isn’t because she tried to please everybody. In fact, quite on the contrary.
“I just get up every morning and look at my diary and do my very best I can. Try to answer queries when they come up, try to solve problems when they come up. I hate accepting problems, I’m a big problem solver and I’ve got a lot of perseverance in me. I can take a fight right through to the end.
“So I just get up and do that every day and I can’t really be worried about how people perceive me or what they think of me.
“You know, if you’re going to be sensitive in politics, you will not survive. You will not survive. It is a tough, tough environment. If you are expecting people to be fair and rational and logical and decent, you are in the wrong place. But while you must always expect people to behave in manipulative and devious ways, you can’t lose your capacity to trust people and you don’t have to abandon integrity yourself.
“And trying to keep a balance between all of those contradictory forces in the one arena that you’re working can be very difficult. That’s why my home has meant everything to me. I’m going there and I can accept that people are saying what they mean and mean what they say and that there are decency and integrity and looking after each other’s well being and that makes all the difference to have that space.”
As the DA headed to its May 2015 national conference, out of the blue Helen Zille announced that she will not be standing again as party leader.
“As DA leader I had been nominated uncontested for the congress in 2015. A couple of things weighed on me. One was that I didn’t think there would be sufficient diversity in the leadership.”
“We had asked Athol [Trollip] to stand back once before and that brought its own complexities and I felt at that time it was my responsibility to stand back.”
“There were many other reasons that bolster that decision, for example. I was a sixty-something-year-old woman, and there was Julius Malema, a thirty-something-year-old young man, trying to become the face and voice of the official opposition. I have a very different style from Julius, but I also really felt we needed a younger face because the DA and the values we stand for had to provide a convincing alternative to the ANC and not only leave space for what Julius, in his unthought through and impulsive and compulsive way, is saying.
“We had to be able to deliver a counter in a way that would be attractive to young people and provide a real challenge to Julius Malema. That was a contributory reason as well. So, there is never only one overriding reason, there’s many that come together that make you decide that it is time to go.”
Despite having handed over the reins, Zille and her successor Mmusi Maimane often have to hear from critics that Maimane is a puppet, with Zille still pulling the strings.
“You know, it’s just so extraordinary to me that somebody somewhere can invent a complete fantasy and deliver it as fact across the nation. I don’t sit on any of the decision-making bodies of the Democratic Alliance, I don’t interfere in a single decision, whether I agree with it or not. If I’m asked my opinion, I will give it crisply and appropriately to the person who has asked me,” Zille responds, with more than a hint of incredulous annoyance in her voice.
“Nothing could be further from the truth that I am running the DA. But that is a deliberately manufactured lie because the ANC has got no other argument than race and even when we have a black leader, they have to pretend the evil white wicked witch is still pulling the strings behind the scenes. They invent that nonsense and that anybody [takes] that seriously, is laughable to me.”
While to some she is an “evil white wicked witch”, as she put it, she also has many staunch supporters.
“I have die-hard supporters, that is true. But again, you know. I’m an ordinary mortal with faults and with strong points. I’ve got some characteristics that keep me on the road, one is perseverance, one is determination, one is the ability to confront when I have to. And that keeps me going.
“So I’m not in any way out of the ordinary than other people. I got certain attributes that I use. I like risks, I like challenges and that combination has put me on the road I’m on.”
One of the controversies Zille got embroiled in recently, was about what has come to be known as the “colonialism tweets”.
“So that was a classic case of manufactured outrage and when people look back, they will simply laugh at it, that there was such an outrage over someone saying the legacy of colonialism was not only negative in the context of a series of tweets of around what I had learned in Singapore. To suggest that in any way I was glorifying colonialism or supporting colonialism or saying that it had been a good thing for Africa, is such a distortion of what I said that it doesn’t bear serious consideration.”
Zille is convinced that her administration left the Western Cape in a better state than what they found it.
“Absolutely. And I don’t think that anybody could argue with the statistics. They are simply there, verified by the presidency, verified by independent institutions that monitor these things. But that doesn’t lead to say our work is over. The work of progress is never over. And I really hope that Alan Winde can build on the platform that we together, as a team in this cabinet have constructed, and take us to the next level. And I genuinely hope the voters will give us an opportunity to do that.”
The controversies, the battles, and running a government – the political life can be almost all-consuming.
“One’s job is pretty all-consuming. But I have my family and they have been a lifeline to me. I have two wonderful sons who tease me, who sends me up, who challenge me on things, who are well informed about issues. Who debate issues with me a lot, who often disagree with me.
“Husband, ditto. And they’ve made sure that I never take myself too seriously. They shut things off very easily. And so when the storms are swirling around my head in my public life, things are usually very steady in my private life. And that has made an enormous difference to me because I could go home and literally cast off the day.”
And now, at the end of 20 bruising years in representative politics, Zille looks back and feels it was all worth it.
“I love my job. I absolutely love the challenge, I love the battles, I love the conflict, I love the consensus. I love the adrenaline. It was more than worth it. It was a life of great fulfilment. And I hope it isn’t over yet.”
And after the video cameras stop rolling, the dictaphone was switched off and the interviewer’s notebook closed, Zille exclaims: “You haven’t even asked me about my granddaughter!”