Time stands still for no woman; this truth is the thread running through Helen Zille’s life and career. Zille is currently the Premier of South Africa’s second largest province, by GDP, the Western Cape. For the last seven years, she has also been the leader of South Africa’s official opposition party – the Democratic Alliance (DA) – suffering all the slings and arrows that go with the job. At 63 years old, she is a wife and mother; an anti-apartheid activist and a former journalist.
“I try to use each minute that I have. I also enjoy being busy. I always say that for relaxation, I enjoy working slowly, without being under too much pressure,” she says.
It has been a tough year. The South African general elections, in May last year, saw the DA garner nearly 22% of the votes, an increase of 3.25%; a slow and painful eating away of the vast majority held for 20 years by the ruling African National Congress (ANC).
“We win three per cent at every election and then go away and cry for five years until we can try again,” said one DA activist on election night in Pretoria.
Even for the indefatigable Zille, the campaign trail proved a sapping marathon. It was born under a bad sign; before a vote was cast there was an embarrassing bungled coalition with a smaller political party run by Mamphela Ramphele – Agang. The two leaders sealed the deal with a kiss, but ended up spitting as the coalition fell apart.
“I offered her the world, she wanted the universe, she has ended up with a shack in Pofadder,” said Zille on election night of the still-born coalition. For the uninitiated, Pofadder is a small town in South Africa’s very quiet Northern Cape province.
The press had a field day, but the best was yet to come. There was talk of discord in the DA ranks right up to the casting of the last vote. To make matters worse, Zille’s right hand woman, Lindiwe Mazibuko, walked away after the elections. Many saw Mazibuko as the heir apparent.
Zille will battle through. In less than 18 months, she faces South Africa’s Municipal Election, where the DA is pushing to take the key provinces of Johannesburg and the Nelson Mandela Metropolitan Municipalities from the ANC.
This political street fight is not too far from her thoughts as Zille arrives at the FORBES WOMAN AFRICA photo shoot in a whirl. In the space of 30 minutes, she has parallel-parked and unloaded her car; pulled a collection of suitcases and bags up the staircase to the studio; greeted all in English, Afrikaans and Xhosa; investigated the wardrobe; made a call to her economics advisor; tweeted her whereabouts and thoughts to 546, 000 followers and has settled in for make-up and hair-styling.
“Even as a young girl, I never slept much. I was determined and very active. I was always organizing things – clubs, events and galas – anything!” says Zille.
Zille went to school in Johannesburg. She started out in 1974 as a political journalist writing for the liberal Rand Daily Mail. A 26-year-old Zille made headlines – along with then editor Allister Sparks – with an expose of the death in prison of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko. The story of the attempt to cover up police brutality made headlines around the world and helped make Zille’s name.
“I enjoyed the pressure of the job. I enjoyed the investigative component of journalism, working against deadlines, being challenged. Those things float my boat, and that was the reason I really enjoyed my job at the Rand Daily Mail. I had grown up in a liberal home, so I was used to seeing my parents oppose apartheid. It was hard-wired in me and I did not think it was unusual.”
The newspaper shut in 1985 in a clampdown on freedom. Zille’s career veered into public policy and education when the University of Cape Town appointed her director of development in 1993.
At this stage, she was married with two small children and never dreamed a career in politics was just around the corner.
“I never intended to become a politician. It happened accidentally. When I was chair of the governing body of the Grove Primary School, where my children went to school, the government undertook such damaging actions, that I went to court to stop them – and when this did not help, I realized I had to be in the political arena to fight for what I believed in, where it really mattered – where policies and laws are made,” she says.
In fact, Zille was appointed provincial head of education after becoming progressively closer to the Democratic Party – an early incarnation of the DA – in 1999.
The next 15 years saw Zille rise through the leadership of the party, becoming a member of parliament in 2004, leader in 2007 and Mayor of Cape Town. The latter saw an election win by a wafer-thin majority.
“We had to put together a seven-party coalition and then we only made it by a single vote, if the PAC (Pan Africanist Congress) abstained. The likelihood of that happening was really remote. But we managed to pull it off, and that vote defined the next five years,” she says.
Zille’s victories as Cape Town mayor included cutting crime and boosting the economy. Critics counter that South Africa was growing quickly anyway.
Despite this, Zille has weathered the squall through three national elections by never backing down.
As Western Cape premier, Zille sees her mission as the promotion of the province as a pocket of excellence that could bode well for ambitions to take over two more municipalities in the 2016 elections. The Western Cape’s green economy is one area which Zille has taken to with a passion.
The province is enticing foreign investors into the burgeoning wind and solar industries. The investment drive has brought in R8 billion ($645 million).
“Our government is committed to doing everything it can to ensure that wind farms are developed without unnecessary logistical and regulatory hitches. We are therefore appealing to developers to engage with us on any problems they encounter so that we can ensure the efficient roll-out of these farms across the province.”
Another area of focus for Zille is the promotion of the Western Cape as a breeding ground for young, creative tech types – an idea dreamed up in 2008 by tech entrepreneurs Vinny Lingham and Justin Stanford to help drum up venture capital. Since then, the ‘Silicon Cape’ has taken on a life of its own.
Zille may not be savaged in the same way as her predecessor at the DA, Tony Leon – who was once derided as a yapping Chihuahua – but the arrows of outrageous fortune have swished past her head.
Just ask one of Africa’s best-known scourges of the pompous and the political. Commentators and angry politicians have often accused political cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro, or Zapiro, of being tough on the ANC and gentler with the opposition.
Try telling Zapiro that as he took aim over the last year. His pen first drew Zille as Godzille – a monster-politician, in 2006, with tongue firmly in cheek.
This year, Zapiro reprinted the cartoon and inferred that Zille had become the caricature. He referred to Zille’s backlash against Mazibuko’s departure from the DA.
Zille confirmed that her professional relationship with Mazibuko had suffered and criticized Mazibuko’s track-record.
“I like and respect Helen,” says Zapiro. “But she has many human failings. She takes charge of too many things and hasn’t loosened her hold on the party’s leadership. There is some evidence in the public space which suggests that the young bloods inside the DA are frustrated by her strong grip. For example, there was the incident where she tried to parachute Mamphela Ramphele into the organization.”
Zille has also been criticized for not using self-control on social media platforms, Twitter in particular where Zille takes on both supporters and critics. When she speaks about her public image, she is phlegmatic.
“The electorate is not static or homogenous. People see me in different ways which is why I have nicknames ranging from Godzille to Nontsapho (which means the mother of the family). I suppose some people see me as tough and ruthless, other people see me as kind and motherly – and everything in between.”
Mother or monster, love her or hate her; you can’t ignore Zille.