She is not everyone’s cup of tea, but the former leader of South Africa’s official opposition is an extraordinary figure.

Helen Zille with supporters in Green Park Cape Town

An old friend of mine and someone for whom I have the highest respect (even when I disagree with her), Helen Zille achieved a great deal in leading the Democratic Alliance.

She is – as I have seen many times – loved by many of Cape Town’s poor, even if she is not always appreciated by the literati. No-one can deny her passion and her love for South Africa.

Below is a profile from the magazine, Noseweek.



We catch up with the political powerhouse that is Helen Zille.

When we meet, a week after the May elections, Helen Zille  is in the throes of vacating the Western Cape premier’s residence after ten years at the helm of the only province in South Africa not governed by the ANC. Wrapped in her dressing gown, she has flu and is exhausted. “You can see I’m a bit terse. I am sick. There is no fuse left.” She waves our photographer away, saying “there will be no photos today”.

When finally seated in the reception room at Leeuwenhof, Zille has some words of advice for incoming premier Alan Winde: “Manufactured outrage will accompany everything he says and does. When they can’t get to him, they will try his children and his family. He must be steeled for that. He will get tough. Very, very tough,”  she says, adding: “This is not a glamorous job. It’s a bloody difficult one. Perseverance and true grit are what will see him through.

“You start with an account full of credits, and you use up those credits every day. You have to just keep on keeping on. That’s the one piece of advice I have for him.

“Secondly, he must develop really good judgement about who to listen to. Everyone will be telling him what to do and he must ignore 99 percent of them. Pick your advisers very carefully.”

Her abrupt dismissal of our photographer sadly dissolves our plan to get an exclusive shot with her and her adored grandchild Mila, the daughter of Zille’s son Paul and her daughter-in-law Gretl. (She  relents later and provides us with a picture of her own.)

Helen Zille and her grandchild Mila

Right then she’s waiting for a call to see if she needs to pick Mila up from crèche. “Mila is a strong little girl, an absolute sweetheart… We read lots of books and watch Pepper Pig and we dance, but she doesn’t like me to dance,” she confides.

Despite being ill, Zille talks stoically, in between coughs, about her undecided future, the state of the DA and reveals her pet peeves: “identity politics”; the “scapegoating of minorities”; and the “double standards and hypocrisy applied to racism.”

Tea is delivered by a lady called Blanche (“one of the people I am going to miss terribly when I move from Leeuwenhof,” says Zille). The historic 17th century estate at the foot of Table Mountain in Gardens was once a farmhouse and dates back to the days of the Dutch East India Company. The house – said to be haunted, she routinely reminds visitors – sits in a garden of rolling lawns, with a tennis court and swimming pool and hosts a collection of artworks by South African masters along with other valuable pieces.

Interviewed in 2009 when she and her husband Emeritus Professor Johann Maree moved in to the residence, Zille said the house was lovely, but “not home”, that she considered herself a “temporary sojourner there”. “It’s a bit nerve-racking when you pick up a glass and are not sure if it came with Simon van der Stel or whoever,” she said at the time.

What will she miss the most about Leeuwenhof? “If I am having a formal or official dinner, I don’t have to think for two seconds. I arrive home, shower and change – and there it all is. That’s an absolute blessing. People come for tea or a formal appointment, and a tray appears!”

And which artwork would she nab, if she were that type of person? “Well, like Ace Magashule, I would go for the Pierneefs. They are my favourite. The most precious one is worth a hell of a lot.” (ANC Secretary-General Ace Magashule is being investigated by the Hawks in connection with a Pierneef painting valued at R8 million that belongs to the Free State provincial government and which went missing from a safe while he was in the process of vacating his office as Free State Premier last year – see nose235.)

Zille has no idea what she will do next. “I don’t even know where we are going to live. We are taking one day at a time. People think I am the epitome of planning and timing but I am like that only where it matters. We have a home on the Keurbooms River. We might stay there for a while… we might live in a few B&B’s in platteland towns, but we will just make sure everyone else is settled, then find a place.”

She says nothing about the persistent rumours in journalistic circles that she might be starting a new liberal party.

“I could do pretty much anything. I could run a political school for the DA if it is still interested in the core liberal values. I could be involved in fixing our local governments or in managing major projects. I have a lot of experience.”

She also has another book in her, she says. What would the book be about? “Different things on different days depending on how I am feeling. The full story of our governance hasn’t been written, but there is a whole book to be written about the DA.”

Commenting on speculation that she could be elected as the new Chancellor of the University of Cape Town – Julius Malema was another candidate touted – to replace outgoing incumbent Graça Machel, she says, “Well I would be better than Julius Malema. If I do not continue in politics I would consider this. It would be a great honour but to be frank I don’t think it will come to that, because I might continue in politics in one way or another, in which case it would not be a good idea to be a chancellor. There are lots of people doing it but it’s not right.
If I was bowing out of politics I would consider it, but if I continue in politics I will take my name out of the hat. We don’t want politicians as chancellors of universities “But I am very interested in education and fighting for the things that will fix education properly. I’m not interested in tinkering round the edges.

“I just don’t know. At the moment, I am trying to recover from this flu and I am  awaiting my second grandchild with much anticipation. And I’m packing up this house – which is not a minor endeavour.”

Zille has just been rated as the best premier in South Africa in an Ipsos poll, but rolls her eyes when congratulated on this achievement. “Well, it’s not as if there’s that much competition.”

The success stories under her governance include, (according to a booklet she hands me), a 24.8% growth in employment in the Western Cape; 212,967 affordable and subsidised “housing opportunities” were completed and 105,500 housing units are due for completion by 2022; 82% of the Western Cape government’s 2018 budget was spent on delivery of services to lower income communities; 91.5% of Western Cape households live within 30 minutes of a healthcare facility; the Western Cape received 83% clean audits in 2018/2019, and over 80% of schools have access to free internet.

Also, R1 billion in economic savings has been generated through the provincial government’s red-tape-reduction and ease-of-doing-business strategies.

A key achievement of her premiership, she says, was to fix the procurement system. “This is such a corrupt country that it’s impossible to get rid of people who aren’t performing. In the ten years I was there, we managed to oust one person for poor performance – with all our energy and effort. Incompetence is so protected in this country… And we are only just starting on some of our failing schools.

“Fortunately what I got right is appointing the right people to the right position at the right time. In the Western Cape we appointed people to right positions where we could, but when Sadtu [South African Democratic Teachers Union] appoints the teachers, you can close the book on capacity.”

The biggest challenges Alan Winde will face as premier are, in her view, the unemployment levels in the province and the demographic shifts, as well as “the fact that the budgets don’t follow the individuals who are moving (from province to province) for a better life. “The budgets go to the province from which they come, not to the province they move to. That’s why we end up with 55 children in a classroom.”

What disturbs her the most about the state of the nation?

“The state of our institutions, especially the criminal justice system. These institutions have come very close to collapse.

“Also, the incapable state, linked together by patronage networks, and the failure to separate the party and the state, which all have very profound consequences for the future of every South African. What also really irks me is the use of the race card to deflect attention from these critical issues.”

Another preoccupation (and what’s probably responsible for her vehement tweets) is what she calls the prevalence of identity politics as well as the scapegoating of minorities, which comes with identity politics and the double standards and hypocrisy applied to racism.

“Identity politics is the exact political philosophy on which apartheid was based – and it was once progressive to oppose it. Now it has become progressive to defend it. I don’t buy into that nonsense. What encourages me is that there are more and more people fighting back against this.

“The irony is that in the US, identity politics is meant to defend minorities, but in South Africa, it scapegoats minorities and that is profoundly worrying.”

She’s also bothered by “the double standards and hypocrisy” applied to racism. “Julius Malema can come within a whisper of endorsing genocide… and then a complete unknown person can say something slightly racist and it’s on the front page of the papers for weeks. The double standards and hypocrisy are huge.”

Helen motivating her voters

Zille has been in hot water within the party over a number of controversial tweets, including one, in 2017, that said colonialism was not all bad. It saw her being charged with bringing the party into disrepute by the DA Federal Legal Commission and suspended from party activities. A few months ago, she threatened, in a series of tweets, to organise a tax revolt if those involved in corruption were not prosecuted after the Zondo Commission into state capture.

Asked whether she spends hours on Twitter every day, she responds: “In fact, I spend a short time on Twitter every day. I am a very quick typist.” Nothing will stop her from tweeting. “I speak my truth. You can’t let a platform like that be taken over by the least tolerant, most narrow-minded and most racist in society.”

Asked to comment on the state of the DA, she replies, exhaustedly: “Don’t ask me. The DA no longer really knows who or what it is. That’s what worries me the most. The big question is what do we stand for? What’s the core value set we’d die in a ditch for? The DA must still work that out. They used to know.”

She believes one of the main problems with the party is that “there’s been a fundamental shift of moral culture, a zeitgeist shift to a culture of victimhood – and the DA doesn’t know how to position itself within it. I’ve written a lot about it.”

Zille refers a few times to two sociologists who, she believes, have “nailed” this concept of a “shift of moral cultures” – Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning, authors of a book called The Rise of Victimhood Culture: Microaggressions, Safe Spaces and the New Culture Wars.

She believes the massive swing towards support for Donald Trump in the US was largely a response to the “identity politics” that spread through society, which sought to blame “whiteness” and “white privilege” for the problems of minorities. Analysts have called this huge shift a major transition of “moral cultures”.

“It is a shift to a culture of victimhood where people are constantly searching for signs of racism wherever possible, where feelings override facts and people are encouraged to respond to even the slightest unintentional offence with injured outrage. Whites are assumed racist unless they accept this racist philosophy unquestioningly,” she wrote in Daily Maverick.

“In that shift of moral cultures, the DA doesn’t know how to position itself and how to stand up against it as it takes enormous courage to be politically incorrect. “But it’s not my problem anymore,” says Zille.

In their latest election campaign the DA “didn’t understand who they were and how to target our message to the voters. Instead they tried to be popular with voters who don’t share our values. This group racial nationalism, we cannot get out of it. We are so stuck in it. It drives me mad. We must understand what our value set is and stand for it and sell it. We can’t be all things to all people.”

A critical lesson for the DA to learn, she says, is “not to swim with every popular current that comes along, or just because ‘wokeness’ happens to be fashionable at a particular time”.

Despite her numerous spats with the party, Zille has repeatedly claimed she wants nothing more than for Mmusi Maimane to be South Africa’s most successful leader ever.

Who does she admire? “Angela Merkel was a really great leader. And history will show what a strong leader Tony Leon was at a very difficult time as vilified as he was. No really strong leader is ever recognised at the time, especially if they run against the politically correct stream. If you want to be popular, you should stay away from politics.”

She’s reading Francis Fukuyama, American political economist and author, who “has the genius to identify the three factors necessary for a country to consistently make progress to become a relatively stable, prosperous, peaceful state… the rule of law, a capable state and accountability, where individuals take personal responsibility for their lives and are held accountable”.

“His work Political Order and Political Decay was my lodestar.”

She also enjoys the work of Jonathan Haidt, American social psychologist who is considered one of the top global thinkers and writes about the psychology of morality. His third book, The Coddling of the American Mind looks at the effects of progressive values. He believes that in the name of emotional well-being US students are increasingly demanding protection from “words and ideas” that might offend them or make them uncomfortable. He believes it is a disaster for education and for mental health.

Zille believes there is room – “more than ever before” – for a liberal democratic party in South Africa. “It’s the only philosophy by which SA can be governed successfully. We abandon that at our peril.”

During our interview Zille refers to a tweet she sent out on election day. “The funniest thing happened. I was sitting next to my husband having a much-needed coffee break in my Knysna constituency, when his phone rang. It was me, urging him to go and vote. He had done so already. So he pressed 1 to opt out!”

A few days after our interview, Zille is back in the news for another tweet – about black privilege. “…It is being able to loot a country and steal hundreds of billions and get re-elected.” She remains unapologetic in response to the huge backlash. In another tweet, she said an assault on US politician Arnold Schwarzenegger on May 10 got very little media attention “because he is white”. Soon after that, comments by her that she promoted black leaders during her tenure, receive a deluge of negative responses from within the party.

In a column on her failures as a leader, she claims that one of her greatest failures was her inability to prevent the DA from falling into a trap involving race narratives – and entering the ANC/EFF’s race narrative arena. She claims she tried to satisfy her ANC opponents by pursuing inclusivity but that the ANC’s understanding of diversity means putting a person’s biological characteristics above their other attributes needed for accomplishment.

“My mistake was to think that diversifying the DA would lead it to rise above the politics of race. What I should have seen was that this was just the beginning of a slippery slope in a culture like South Africa in which the public analysis is, unless you satisfy the ANC’s definition of transformation, you will always be a white party, no matter how diverse you are.”

KwaZulu-Natal newspaper editor Dennis Pather wrote recently in a rather poignant article entitled “Will the real Zille please stand up?” that his earliest recollections of her were of a courageous journalist and activist who made her home a safe house for political activists during the 1986 State of Emergency. “However, something seems to have gone astray in recent years, ever since someone introduced her to a new toy… Twitter.

“Ever since being hooked, she’s embarked on an irrepressible Twitter spree that has rendered her almost unrecognisable from the Zille we once knew.…What’s happening Helen? Are we back to the days when everything was either white or black and never the twain shall meet? Or is it perhaps a bit of apartheid nostalgia creeping in?”

Primedia’s John Maytham tried to get his head around Zille in a recent radio interview where she repeats that her biggest mistake was to be “beguiled” into getting into the ANC/EFF framework on the racial narrative. “…I believed if we could really diversify the DA’s leadership, we could rise above the dominance of the race debate and focus on the things I believe should take primacy such as how we grow the economy and get people into jobs. I felt if we were properly diverse it would have far more credibility to our messages on jobs, growth and education.

“What I had not anticipated was that going down the road of diversity would not enable us to rise above the race debate and focus on the critical debate around jobs, economic growth and education. Instead it dragged us further down the road of the ANC’s logic where you can never be diverse enough until you’re totally racially hegemonic and every time you become more diverse they say ‘no this is not representative enough and the debate snowballs on race, rather than rising above race.

“…The real barriers to the advancement of black people in South Africa are not race per se, but factors of economic decline, bad education and the non-alignment between our education system and the skills required. So let’s move on to those issues, let’s remove the real barriers to black advancement and stop scapegoating minorities and stop pretending whites are the barrier. That’s the critical debate we have to get beyond.

“The ANC only have one issue. They can’t fight on their track record… on improving anything from education, to state-owned enterprises, to service delivery. The only card they have is racial mobilisation and the only stick they have to beat the DA with is that we’re not transformed enough…because the ANC can never focus on the real issues. For every real issue they’ve messed things up entirely and looted the state. The only thing they have to focus on is race, so they always say the DA is a white party. We tried more and more to satisfy our opponents rather than do what we do well.

“When I stepped down as leader, of course the ANC said, ‘well you’re still a white party as Zille’s still there pulling the strings and Maimane is a puppet’. It was absolute nonsense but it was the only card they had left…

“Eventually in trying to feed the tiger and trying to meet the ANC’s demands on race …a strategy emer-ged, that ‘if we kill [off] Zille, we won’t be seen as a white party anymore’ but that’s as fallacious as believing that having a black leader will take away this tag of white party.

“What we should have done differently is simply say the ANC will never buy into our understanding of inclusivity and of non-racialism so we must do it because it’s good in and of itself. We must never try to do it to satisfy our opponents.

“No matter how much we try to satisfy their card on their terms, we never can and we never will.”

A life dedicated to public affairs and politics

Born in Hillbrow, Johanneburg in 1951, to parents who had individually left Germany in the 1930s to avoid the Nazis (her maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother were Jewish) Helen Zille joined the Young Progressives – the youth movement of the Progressive Party in 1969.

Helen Zille

After gaining a BA from Wits she became a journalist. While working for the Rand Daily Mail she exposed the government cover-up of the death in detention of black consciousness leader Steve Biko. She also joined a number of anti-apartheid groups including the Black Sash and the End Conscription Campaign.

In 1989, she started a consultancy business and in 1993 became director of Development and Public Affairs at the University of Cape Town. In 1999 she became a Member of the Western Cape Provincial Legislature and was MEC for education until 2001.

She worked as an MP at Parliament from 2003 to 2006, became Mayor of Cape Town from 2006, and premier of the Western Cape from 2009 until 2019.

Zille became leader of the DA in 2007, a position she held until 2015.

She was named World Mayor of the Year in 2008.