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South Africa

Maverick Interview: Helen Zille in the eye of the storm

Maverick Interview: Helen Zille in the eye of the storm

Every new political leader begins their tenure with a positive balance of what former DA leader Tony Leon has termed “political capital”. It is inevitable that as that leader establishes and implements their particular vision and the party begins to change, grow and succeed – as the Democratic Alliance under Zille’s leadership has done - they deplete this store of currency. But is it a finite quality and is Helen Zille running on empty? By MARIANNE THAMM.

The storm outside of the quiet wood-panelled corridors of the Office of the Premier of the Western Cape on the first floor of number 7 Wale Street has continued since DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko’s “surprise” announcement shortly after the 7 May election that she was swapping Parliament for Harvard.

Helen Zille, wrote the Daily Maverick’s Brooks Spector this week, was “in a public state of something approaching a near-meltdown, despite her party’s credible showing in that election”. Justice Malala followed with a column in The Times opining “And Helen Zille? Well, she is in trouble. She is in big, big trouble”, while yesterday morning’s Die Burger led with “Zille veg teen DA-faksies” (Zille fights against DA factions).

With these fraught Shakespearean currents swirling about, one would expect the atmosphere here to be a little, ahem, tense. So it was mildly disconcerting to hear occasionally hearty peals of laughter emanating from behind Helen Zille’s closed office door.

To pass through Zille’s portal, visitors first have to navigate the office of Donnae Strydom, her PA, who has a “Beware of the Dog” sign featuring a meaty Rottweiler, and that is strategically placed at eye-level outside her doorframe. (She doesn’t refer to her boss).

The door to the Premier’s office burst open and a little cluster of people shuffled out with a smiling Zille tailing them. One of the visitors was the young Michael Mpofu, Zille’s newly appointed spokesperson now that Zakhele Mbhele is headed for Parliament. Talk about the deep end. Rather you than me, pal, but Mpofu seemed unruffled, as did the DA Leader who appeared to be remarkably sanguine for someone who currently heads a party and a house clearly divided.

On the boardroom table in Zille’s office a blue folder marked “Premier’s Diary, 20 May 2014” lay alongside a copy of Alan Knott Craig’s slim tome, Really, Don’t Panic!

(Disclosure: Alan Knott-Craig Jr. is Daily Maverick’s founding shareholder.)

So, is she panicking?

“Somebody brought me this because they must have thought I was. Alan Knott-Craig wrote this sweet note,” she says, thumbing the book.

“Dear Helen, life’s not about waiting for the storms to pass, it is about learning to dance in the rain,” Zille read out aloud.

“It was very sweet of him, but I am not panicking,” she says with a smile.

The thing about leadership, says Zille, is that it should be viewed “not over a short space of time but over a long one. I’ll wait for another ten or twenty years for people to assess what I have done with the DA and my leadership of the DA.”

When it comes to growing support, one cannot argue that Zille has not succeeded. As the results of the recent election prove, with the party capturing 22.2% of the vote (up from 16.7 in 2009) as well as gaining an outright majority of 59.8% in the Western Cape, displacing the IFP as the official opposition in KwaZulu-Natal and upping support by 9% in Gauteng.

And while the DA managed to snag around 750,000 black votes, senior ANC NEC member Pallo Jordan, writing in Business Day on May 15, made an interesting observation about the white South Africans who voted for the party.

“Statistics from last week’s elections show that about 95% of the white electorate supported the Democratic Alliance (DA). Considering that this is a constituency Tony Leon at one time mobilised to ‘fight back’, DA leader Helen Zille has possibly transformed the DA from the party of white apprehension and anxiety to one that embraces the democratic breakthrough and actively celebrates it. If the electoral support the DA mustered among the overwhelming majority of white South Africans denotes a coming to terms with the 21st-century reality that SA’s future is in the hands of its black majority, that would indeed be a riposte to the reservations expressed by Steve Biko and his associates [about white liberals and their obsessive hankering after a role in black politics]”.

Jordan continued that Zille had predictably focused on the 750,000 “Africans” who had voted for the DA while understating “the really significant transition” the party has made under her stewardship.

“DA strategists have at long last recognised that no political party can hope to remain relevant while ignoring the interests and aspirations of the black majority.”

What has this got to do with the departure of Lindiwe, the “black caucus” and the current news loop about the “grooming of black leaders” and tensions and a crisis within the party? Hang on, we’ll get there.

In 2011 I followed Zille as she criss-crossed the country on the campaign trail for the municipal elections that took place on 18 May that year. Already then I realised that anyone who claims the DA is a “still a white party” hasn’t really got out much lately.

On the stump in 2011, there was a moment during a fundraiser at a hotel in Port Elizabeth that begs retelling in that it is revealing of the core, underlying vision or ethos Zille held (and still holds) for the party after winning leadership when Leon stepped down in 2007. (And bear in mind, Zille was not Leon’s choice of successor; Athol Trollip was).

The room was packed with mostly white, well-heeled traditional DA supporters; older women sporting deep, real tans and wearing strappy sandals and little black numbers and men mostly in business suits. These are DA supporters who have deep wallets and the party needs them. The crowd had all come to hear Zille speak.

One of the few black people in the room that evening was DA Youth Coordinator, Knight Ntabeni, who stuck out like…well…like a black person at the Franschhoek Literary Festival.

Zille arrived looking slightly burdened by notes and files and wearing a blue traditional Xhosa skirt or umbaco and a pair of blue takkies – totally unlike those who had gathered to hear her speak.

The women in the room stared as she took the podium and began her address, which she delivered entirely in fluent Xhosa for the first ten minutes. There was an uncomfortable murmur in the audience as people looked around and at each other nonplussed.

Eventually, when Zille did switch to English, she told the puzzled audience, “You have to learn to do things differently. You know, I often get asked ‘Mrs Zille, why do you toyi-toyi? Do you have to? Mrs Thatcher didn’t toyi-toyi.’ Well, I am not Mrs Thatcher.”

There was a silence that was broken by a shout from the back of the room.

“Well, actually, that is all they know how to do.”

Zille scanned the room, her eyes seeking out the culprit.

“Who said that?” she asked, neither angry, nor confrontational, just matter-of-factly.

A man sheepishly owned up and Zille proceeded to use the opportunity to shame him (in the kindest possible fashion) and also to remind those gathered, “These are not sentiments that belong in the DA. They are hurtful, offensive and unacceptable. They may have belonged to the party of the past. But one day, in the not too distant future, a black leader will be standing here in front of you. A black leader who will share the values of this party and you will have to support him or her. You had better get used to it.”

The idea that the DA would one day be led by a black leader is not only Zille’s to claim. In 2006, the party’s former CEO, Ryan Coetzee (whose ghost lingers in the current ‘crisis’ in the party) set out in a paper titled “Becoming a Party for All the People: A New Approach for the DA” how the party, if it did not win black support, would face irrelevance.

“We must not underestimate the scale of this challenge: it will be very difficult to succeed, because we are taking on all of South Africa’s history and the way in which that history has divided people,” Coetzee wrote at the time.

And herein lies one of Zille’s many conundrums: How to build a non-racial leadership and party in a country steeped in and obsessed with race. Where to find black leaders in a party that has no history of black participation in the past? How to balance the ideological liberal core of the party with these transformational demands?

Bear in mind that Zille is more of an accidental than a career politician like Tony Leon, or Helen Suzman. Zille, as we all know, began life as a journalist. She spent the 1980s working for a variety of anti-Apartheid movements including The Black Sash and the End Conscription Campaign. She came to the DA in 1997 when she was asked by Tony Leon to revise the party’s education policy. In 1999 she was elected MEC of education and in 2004 became an MP and the education portfolio spokesperson. She was a reluctant Mayoral Candidate for the party when it took Cape Town from the ANC with a coalition of seven parties in 2006 and also agonised about running for the leadership position before she won against Trollip in 2007.

And so began Zille’s project of recruiting and “grooming” new black leaders in the party which included the establishment of a political school as well as a search for candidates which became “corporate” in nature. Instead of finding leaders only in the ranks of party activists, the DA placed advertisements in newspapers. Zille herself began to look out for talent. Talent she says she recognised when she first encountered Lindiwe Mazibuko in the mid 2000s when Mazibuko chose to do her honours dissertation on Zille.

But the seeds of the current crisis that ended in Mazibuko’s perhaps premature departure are not recent, and were sown already in 2009 when Coetzee – unexpectedly for him (and his supporters inside the party) – lost the vote for the position of Leader of the party in Parliament (after Zille had opted to become Premier) to Athol Trollip.

Two years later in 2011, encouraged by Coetzee, Mazibuko decided to stand for Leader against Trollip (who was seen by some in the party as too white and too old) during a mid-term election.

Zille had initially discouraged Mazibuko from standing (she had thought she was not experienced enough) but later decided to throw her weight behind Mazibuko (with Trollip’s knowledge). Mazibuko’s victory over Trollip became known in the party as “Ryan’s revenge”.

Mazibuko, says Zille, is an extremely talented and able politician but her lack of experience soon began to show.

“You could say I used up some of my political capital at the time encouraging people to vote for Lindiwe. But for reasons it didn’t pay off and I understand why the caucus is fed up with me,” Zille told Daily Maverick.

Trollip, Zille said, had been “extremely mature and very good natured about it when he was defeated and went back off to the Eastern Cape where he is building the organisation and doing it brilliantly. I have the highest regard for him.”

Zille subsequently used up even more political capital attempting to parachute Mamphela Ramphele in as the DA’s presidential candidate before the elections, and we all know how that ended.

“Of course one uses up political capital, but hopefully on good causes and for the right reasons.”

The right reasons presumably being a desire to see the DA led by a black leader and to be willing to stand down to accomplish this.

But managing a party that has grown as much as the DA, and that is in the process of transforming internally, was never going to be easy. Politics often attracts ambitious individuals with an appetite for power, and Zille needs not only oversee the party’s ideological locus but also manage these competing ambitions and egos. And these are the conditions that have allowed factions – as is the case with the ANC – to grow and for individuals with ambition to rally supporters and, in some cases, use the media to settle political scores.

In a party as open as the DA, where, Zille claims, she has very little power as the leader because “there are systems and structures and processes to limit power” – those who seek power will play the political game.

Ultimately Zille would like to build a “new majority that reflects all of South Africa and that defends the Constitution and helps to build a non-racial South Africa based on the principles of an open society”.

It all seems simple enough, doesn’t it? But this is politics, and politics is a “bloodsport”, says Zille.

The core job of a leader, Tony Leon told an audience at the Franschhoek Literary Festival this weekend, was to “lead and build a political party.”

Either way, Zille knows whatever she does now she will be criticised and judged by some and supported by others. For now, she feels that the party will weather the storm.

“I have seen trouble and this is not it,” she said.

“I have come to this conclusion that we are all committed to diversity and inclusion. We are all committed to being the change we want to see in the world. All of us, but what no one in this entire debate on affirmative action wants to admit that there is a trade-off between diversity and experience. There are a number of massive contradictions at the heart of affirmative action. Everyone flays you when you don’t support it but the minute there is any suggestion that anyone has been appointed, even in part because of affirmative action, there is an outcry. ‘How can you say it was because they were black?’ they ask. It is a total contradiction.”

Nominations for new Leader in the Parliament opened on Monday – Mmusi Maimane is on that list – and close on 26 May. The Leader will be elected on 29 May and a new era for the DA will begin.

So, accepting that you have used up loads of capital and that you currently lead a divided house, how will you survive?

“By being honest and open about it.”

Will you step down soon?

“I will be making myself available as leader.”

The thing about political capital, Zille believes, is that it is not a finite quality.

“Obviously you start with a lot of capital in the bank; that is why people elected you and then you use up that capital over time, but you often replenish it again. It is not a one-way withdrawal, you know. Your capital goes up and it goes down. It doesn’t matter. It is not as if there is a zero amount and you can only draw down. You can also make deposits.”

Just how much Zille has left in the bank, only time and history will tell.

Now if Zille is looking for a great black leader who might be looking for a job soon,it is Thuli Madonsela, who has graced the cover of Time magazine. Thoughts?

“I promise I won’t try to recruit her,” Zille says with a laugh as she ushers out the Daily Maverick and welcomes in the next hack and photographer who manages to get past Donnae. DM

Photo: Democratic Alliance (DA) Western Cape Premier and party leader Helen Zille (L) greets supporters during the final mass election rally at the Coca-Cola Dome in Johannesburg, South Africa, 03 May 2014. EPA/CORNELL TUKIRI


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