Helen Zille: Rushing through tough questions over a chicken mayo sandwich

2014-05-04 15:00

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At the tail end of a tough campaign, I meet DA leader Helen Zille at the Holiday Inn in Rosebank, northern Joburg. “You must be exhausted?” I ask. She isn’t. “It’s been the easiest campaign thus far,” says Zille of her fourth stump.

A bigger opposition party gets more funds and so there is a machine around the DA. You can see it whirring. “It’s a blue machine,” says Zille, groomed to the nth in blue, with matching business jacket, dress, coiffed hair and earrings with, you’ve guessed it, royal blue stones.

Downstairs, the party’s candidate for Gauteng premier Mmusi Maimane has his custom-kitted Mmusi-mobile parked. Upstairs, Zille has two personal staff at hand to help her run campaign days: Zak Mbhele, her personal adviser, and another impeccably kitted assistant. I have an hour and it is lunch. Zille has a chicken mayonnaise sandwich and salad. She eats at campaign speed.

On Twitter, and in numerous newspaper articles, it is clear the DA leader holds political journalists in some contempt. I ask why.

“There has been no policy interrogation. The story is the row because it’s the easiest story to write. And it’s always written with moral equivalence.

“We would win if this election were about jobs and growth.”

This makes me wonder, because the metanarrative from the party may be jobs and growth, but the dominant one has been the public fund splurge on the president’s home at Nkandla and censorship of the party’s Ayisafani advertisements by the SABC. Did it take the easy road?

“We have to focus on Nkandla – you expose your opponent. If you have a corrupt government, you will never have investment, jobs and growth.”

The party’s headline policy promise is for six million jobs.

I ask Zille whether the DA’s economic policies are not glib. The assumption that investment leads to jobs leads to growth is disproved somewhere in the global economy almost every day and notably in South Africa.

Periods of substantial growth were largely jobless here. “There’s never been reduction of poverty without the growth of capital,” she says, a point that leads us to a dissection of Thomas Piketty’s book Capital in the Twenty-First Century, which Zille has read closely.

I’m not sure when she’s had time to read because the book is long and new. But Zille’s work ethic is legendary.

Piketty argues the superwealthy have consolidated gains to make global inequality endemic. The author makes numerous suggestions to close the gap, all of which Zille supports.

These include limiting generational inheritance like Warren Buffett and Bill Gates have done to donate more wealth, and also bringing down income differentials.

“Jobs are [always] a by-product of investment, says Zille. But does our corporate sector understand the need to be more labour intensive? “Part of our business sector does understand that it is their responsibility, but too much of business does not understand context,” she says.

At a recent business leaders’ award function, Zille gave a speech focused on Marikana.

“I raised the question of when inequality becomes destabilisation,” and she asked whether a 25:1 income differential was possible. (South African differentials are much higher). Her audience did not like the speech, she says.

They pointed out that innovators like OUTsurance would be discouraged by artificially limiting reward. The views on closing the wage gap are hers alone, but you can discern her thinking in the party’s commitment to one million publicly funded internships (a model started in Western Cape) and the handover of title deeds.

In the Western Cape, the party has sorted out and handed over 27 000 title deeds in five years, giving capital and security to people who were formerly state tenants.

The party leader’s sandwich is done, her BlackBerry’s red light is flickering urgently. I still have a hundred questions. I race. “Will you get to 30%?”

This was an internal target, says Zille, and it’s now out of reach. “The appearance of new parties splits the opposition. In 1999, it was the UDM; in 2009, it was Cope; in 2014, it’s Agang and the EFF.”

Bloody Julius! Zille thinks Agang SA will get a seat or two – she says the attempt at unity with her old friend Mamphela Ramphele’s party had to be struck, but she admits to receiving a bloody nose from her federal executive when it splattered apart.

The outcome in Gauteng is still in play, as is Northern Cape. And while Western Cape – the only province the party runs – is likely to remain in its hands, the governing ANC has put up a huge fight for South Africa’s crown jewel.

Zille, now that I look carefully, seems more pensive than I first noticed. Elections are hard grind and the outcomes are still uncertain.

The blue machine’s polls are placing the DA in the early twenties by the time ballots are counted next week; a percentage point climb of five to six. By the polls, it will be the biggest jump.

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