Newsmaker: ‘Leadership is very lonely’

2015-04-19 15:00

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It’s early, an hour before Helen Zille will address the Democratic Alliance’s (DA) parliamentary caucus for the last time as its leader. Sitting on a brown sofa at her official residence, Leeuwenhof, she struggles to keep her emotions in check.

She is anything but the Iron Lady so vilified by the ANC. She’s fragile, emotional.

She smiles, bravely. “I’ll have to fix myself again and make sure there are no ... emotions, you know...”

Her voice cracks; a tear falls on her scarf.

“I have to think what I will say to them for the last time ...” She wipes her cheek, searches for a tissue in her bag.

“Do not feel sorry for me, it’s the right thing.”

Silence.

Then she “Zillenators” herself back into control. “Sometimes you take a big decision and doubt every morning. But every day I think more and more, it’s the right decision.” Her voice cracks on the word every time.

What will she miss, as DA leader?

She laughs cynically. “I do not know, I’m not so sure.”

Her husband enters in his gown and slippers. It’s breakfast time, but Zille’s had hers already. The stylist has just left, the premier is ready for battle.

Exactly a week ago, in this very living room, the drama started.

On Tuesday she was determined to stay on. On Wednesday, doubt started creeping in. That evening, she spoke with two confidantes.

“Leadership is very lonely. No one tells you what you should hear. So you gather a group around you that you know will be honest with you.

“One colleague said stay another two years; the other said the time is now ... Later I went to the kitchen. My husband was on his way to church ... I never go with him, I’m too busy ... I’m always too busy ...

“I said to him, ‘I think it’s time to retire as DA leader’. ‘OK, love, fine, see you later’, he said and walked out. That was that.

“Johann is so calm about everything.”

As always with critical decisions, she made a list. On Thursday, after a meeting with four party leaders and two “total outsiders who could ask the tough questions, I knew, I had to go”.

That night she dealt with her emotions. First at a symphony concert. Then at a sit-down dinner for 16. The staff had gone home, Zille had to warm food and fill glasses. “Sixteen guests, that sort of takes your mind off your worries ...”

In bed, she mulled her decision.

“For me it was the worst decision I could have taken, except for all the others.”

For the country it was the right decision.

For herself? “I feel a bit bereft. It was my life ... I’m still premier though. I had 18-hour days trying to do both jobs. My husband always says if my job was sticking envelopes shut, I would do it 18 hours a day.”

The response to her retirement was mixed.

“In the end I am in a very lonely place. But if the DA can grow by only 1% after this ...”

She sits up straighter, again the boxer in the corner between rounds. “We are in a race against time, our democracy is collapsing, our Constitution is being hollowed out.”

Zille is resigning to avoid the new DA leadership being too white. “There was the question of ensuring we have a diverse leadership.

“How should the leadership look for next year’s local elections? They must make every voter say: ‘I see myself there. That party cares about people like me.’”

“But you don’t only want a team with different amounts of melanin in their skin. You are looking for a diverse team that shares the same values.”

It’s been a tough week, with only three hours of sleep a night.

What gets Zille through are the “hundreds of messages, the small gestures”. Her brother’s SMS, her sons’ warm words: “Hectic, Mom!”, “Well done, Mom!”

“That’s what supports me, from the people who know me best ... I worked day and night since the children were small. And they never said to me, ‘you’re always so busy’. My relationship with them is rock solid. And my husband ... it was not always easy for him, he had a full career as a professor, and I had an overfull career ...

“If I neglected my family – and I hope I did not – I would have sat with a scrapbook full of cuttings, and nothing more. It must be terrible to sacrifice everything for your work. And if that work suddenly disappears, you are left with nothing, even if you leave this great ‘political legacy’ behind you.”

If Zille could have a do-over, would she have done everything the same?

“Yes, you don’t grow without risks.”

She drew new contours on the political landscape, doubled her party’s support, but also became involved in trivialities and Twitter arguments. Impulsive, more activist than politician, she is sometimes excessively dramatic.

What is she most ashamed about as DA leader?

“I’m not diplomatic. If I think you are talking nonsense, I tell you. What I most underestimated is how unbelievably touchy most journalists are. They write the most inaccurate, hurtful things, but if you tackle them, brother, then you are arrogant and undermine press freedom.”

Now what?

“Who knows what doors will open? Or not. But now I feel bloody tired.”

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