Helen Zille, the Mensch for All Seasons? 

By J Brooks Spector 17 July 2012

The DA leader’s personal image seems to depend a great deal on who is speaking about her – and where they stand along South Africa’s political spectrum. So who is the real Helen Zille? J BROOKS SPECTOR attempted to get a better fix on her.

For people of a certain age, the historical arc of the Progressive Party/Progressive Federal Party/Democratic Party/Democratic Alliance begins with the hard moral certainties of Helen Suzman, standing flinty and implacable against apartheid’s lunacies and horrors for long, lonely decades. Then it runs through Tony Leon’s bruising, bristling but ultimately wrongheaded “Fight Back!” campaign and that political marriage with the antediluvian political dinosaur, the New National Party. Now, most recently, the party is being reshaped and repositioned by Helen Zille for what she hopes is a real run for national political impact and power. 

But what influences created her political consciousness? Zille says the biggest influences on her were her parents: her mother (earlier on a refugee from European tyrannies) by virtue of her involvement with that durable anti-apartheid protest organisation, the Black Sash; and her father by virtue of his insistence Helen read the newspapers every day –  pre-eminently the Rand Daily Mail – and then report back to him assiduously what she thought were the key stories reported upon each day. 

By contrast, she says she’s never really had the patience for long, tedious books, whether novels or political treatises. It she is going to read a book, it must be something she can read over a weekend, although she adds that she does savour reading book and film reviews – often more than the actual book or movie. 

Zille explains: “I like people who can say what they need to say” and she still responds best to crisp, clean journalism that “analyzes a moment and projects it into the future,” rather than the writings of abstract theorists. “I’d much rather read The Economist”, she adds for emphasis.

Before seeking actual office, she worked as a backroom worker and canvasser for the Progressive Party, but, in many ways, her starting point in elective politics came when she became the chairwoman of her sons’ school’s governing body, fighting policies that were then making so many veteran, skilled teachers voluntarily redundant through those early retirement offers of the 1990s. That fight “was my first experience of being called a racist… The first time was very painful, but now I’m completely used to it.” 

But before her political persona, of course, there was her first career as a journalist. Her love of the Rand Daily Mail as a child led to the immense satisfaction of working as a journalist for Lawrence Gandar, and the satisfaction of being at the centre of the unravelling and explaining of an important story.

Back then, for Zille, 1977 clearly became what seems in retrospect, the seminal moment in her political education. At the Mail, Allister Sparks had assigned her to report on the Cilliers Commission, the body that had been tasked by the National Party government to investigate “the causes” of the Soweto uprising. (Obviously those folks had not been reading the Mail.) After that it became her assignment to dig into the death of Steve Biko and, eventually, the inquest that was supposedly held to investigate police and government complicity in his death. The press council lashed her reporting on Biko’s death as “tendentious” and “misleading”. These words deeply galled her and still seem to rankle, 35 years on, as she speaks about them. 

Zille adds that those events left her earlier, more innocent faith in humanity profoundly shaken. Remembering, she adds that as a young journalist she “couldn’t believe there had been such injustice in the world.” An eye opener, that. “1977 was a very big turning point for me…. I got more and more enraged. And when Allister Sparks was fired eventually by the very newspaper he had in many ways, along with the others, put on the world map, I was so angry… I resigned and became a full-time political activist with the Black Sash and then the End Conscription Campaign. What drives me is that I get so cross about things!”

In preparing for this conversation, I spoke to a young black journalist acquaintance who had said that it would be important to ask Zille how she would prove she is not a racist to those who remain doubters. Zille replies to what is clearly a provocative statement: “I can only be who I am. I can’t convince anyone of that by words. I hope my life is shown by my deeds and where I am taking the DA, and am still taking the DA….” 

But could she (or should she?) find a public style that would reassure more through a more visible display of sincerity – the kind of thing beloved by most politicians who crave finding the public’s pain – to prove to the sceptical that she is who she says she is? On this Zille simply says: “You can only prove you are who you say you are by being that person day after day in every context…. I can’t do it in biblical terms…. When I became mayor of Cape Town, people said we would take away their grants and their houses – and none of that ever happened.”

“And we just ended up judged by the national government for the best service delivery in the country… And there’s the very fact that scores and scores of people contact me to resolve their problems…. But I can’t fake sincerity…. And I don’t talk much about myself…. I don’t wear my heart on my sleeve. You externalise who you are.” Helen Zille is the anti-glad-hander – although she does show me that she has over 160,000 people following her on Twitter and brandishes a smartphone to prove the point. There are over 220,000 Facebook friends as well.

Looking back over her career, she says the hardest she ever worked was when she was made the DA’s MP for a constituency that included many of Cape Town’s townships. She says people called her all the time for everything from pleas for help when police or ambulances didn’t come or when hospitals wouldn’t dispense HIV/AIDS medications – day and night, without let-up. Then she adds with a bit wry amusement that so many of these very same people later told her they couldn’t vote for her or her party, come an election, because they were stalwart ANC supporters, even though their ANC councillor never did anything for them. In response, she remembers replying frequently: “Well, somebody must have voted for me.” 

The conversation then turns to the recently concluded ANC policy conference. Zille says the net result of that meeting has been added confusion over where the ANC hopes to take the nation – most especially with regard to the mining sector. While the ANC did not endorse the nationalisation of the country’s mines, their continuing debate about that possibility, as well as new discussions about proposed super-profit taxes, taken together, mean these uncertainties effectively constrict participation in the economy – rather than expand it. As a result, the mining houses are taking their investment in new ventures elsewhere. 

In response, she says that “we will launch an 8% growth policy on the 28th of July… The main thrust will be to create an economy in which everyone can participate. I’ve just been editing the document now…. Wilmot (James, federal party chair) and Tim Harris have led this process” for the DA. 

Speaking about the ongoing new positioning of the DA, she explains that they had to shift their focus to being a party of government, once they won the Western Cape, rather than just being the party of “no”. And this, in turn, argued for an increasingly strong effort in Gauteng for the next elections. Meanwhile, Zille says the DA is doing what it can to make the Western Cape an attractive investment destination, including making the Stellenbosch area a high-tech nexus under the rubric of the “Silicon Cape” movement. This includes an ongoing effort to install broadband IT connections at the schools in the townships in the Cape Town area. 

But in areas where the DA is not the governing party the role of its elected officials is more circumscribed, especially when the governing authorities are, in her words, “under-capacitated”. To help on this, the DA is about to launch an interactive website that will allow any citizen to key with their address and find out all the officials who deal with that area and to allow residents to connect with them via sophisticated performance management software that is essential to this new website.

The discussion turns to the aftereffects of that recent “educational refugee” imbroglio. Asked if she ever regrets using that term, she notes that, yes, Twitter conversation can be dangerous and “perhaps [I] should have predicted it”, but it was the national government that prevented building new schools because they would not transfer the land to the province. And, yes, in response to the thought that sometimes she is too fast on the trigger with Twitter, she smiles and says “Yes, maybe sometimes I am,” but adds she did invite singer Simphiwe Dana for lunch after their “professional blacks” furore. However, Dana’s publicist had wanted to invite the media along as well, so in the end they never did have their tête-à-tête. 

On education, if Zille had a magic wand and became the nation’s education czar, she would be touting what she has called the four “T”s: time management to get every child through the syllabus in full and on schedule; supplying excellent teachers for every classroom who are present, prepared, punctual, sober and not given to the temptation of molesting the children in their care; good, comprehensive textbooks that are delivered into the hands of every school-going child; and now, most recently, full access to the right kinds of technology that help deliver education. For the latter she says, “I’ve got a pilot test project (in the Western Cape) to get a tablet into the hands of every pupil, for example.” For Zille, education – and making the country an attractive investment destination – is at the core of economic growth.

That moves the conversation on to the other challenges. Zille adds that South Africa’s mineral wealth can be a curse too, making things a bit too easy for planners. For the DA in the Western Cape, for example, there are now oil and natural gas resources that are going to come on stream (including that natural gas in the Karoo), but future industries include financial asset management, the high-tech medical industry, tourism, and the challenge – and opportunity – inherent in expanding the green economy. 

This, of course, stands in contrast to the view that if a government could just extract enough wealth from the rich and from big companies for the benefit of the people, things would be better for all – a message that is, after all, enormously tempting to people who have little now. The only way to respond to this properly, Zille says, is to make the economy grow bigger and become more inclusive. One challenge along the way, of course, is that there are all those subsidies and grants that distort the economy while supporting the poor in a basic, no-frills way, rather than leading them to greater economic participation and opportunity. If she had her way, grants would follow the Brazilian social welfare programme’s example of linking welfare grants to education and participation in community health efforts.

As for the future of her party’s leadership, what would that look like down the road? Zille points to her signature young leaders’ project that is in effect the party’s political school, but cast in the vision of supporting the ethos of what she calls “the open opportunity society”. This project takes in 25 people at a time for a one-year, intensive training effort and it has consistently been oversubscribed, she says. Zille also speaks enormously highly of young DA leaders like Lindiwe Mazibuko and Mmusi Maimane, who will be just the kind of people she believes should lead their party in the future. They’re South Africa’s “best and brightest”. 

Zille rounds up our time together by arguing that the emerging South African zeitgeist is that of an ANC on the decline. Though it is true the DA cannot now win nationally, her party has good prospects in the Northern Cape and Gauteng. This creates, she says, a certain buzz among young, ambitious people who see a future for themselves in politics, who see that the ANC is the party of the past, rather than the future. And so, it is time for predictions. Will the ANC lose a national election in 2014, 2019 or 2024, Zille is asked. And she responds, “I’m a realist, but I want to aim for 2019.”

And then, surprisingly, in a moment one would expect from Hollywood, but not Sandton, as we finish up, one of the restaurant staffers, a young woman comes over and she and Zille have an animated conversation as we try to get the hand-held credit card reader to function properly. The conversation is completely in Xhosa, save for the word “cheque”. At the end of it, the restaurant worker tells Zille she wants a photograph of the two of them together – and that she had voted for the DA in the most recent election. Then there is yet another staffer – and it is the same story – with a “please can we take a smartphone photo and yes, I voted for the DA as well.” 

Well, all right, maybe these two people aren’t entirely representative of the country’s numbers of unemployed, no-hopers, desperate for any port in their economic storm. But by the same token, perhaps they are emblematic of rising numbers of younger black South Africans eager to rise in their careers. Helen Zille – and her party – is clearly betting on that vision of the future. DM

Read more:

  • Helen Zille – Leader of the Democratic Alliance at the party’s webpage
  • DA home page
  • Premier of the Western Cape: Bio; Helen Zille
  • Helen Suzman bio at the SA History Online site
  • Allister Sparks bio at Wikipedia
  • MZUKISI QOBO: Factions and ANC culture will shackle new chief in Business Day (one of Zille’s favourite opinion columnists in South African media)

Photo by Jordi Matas.


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