Zille has her last dance

Port Elizabeth - Outgoing DA leader Helen Zille had her "last dance" on Saturday as she assured members that the party's mission to govern the country had only just begun.

"I can promise you that that is the last time you will see me dance," she said as stage fireworks sparked across the stage and delegates were bathed in blue confetti at party's federal congress at the Boardwalk convention centre in Port Elizabeth.

"It is an immense honour to be here and speak to you for the last time as the DA federal leader. The DA hasn't just been a big part of my life... it has often felt like my whole life."

She said a lot had happened in the party for the last eight years with her at the helm. 

"We could not have predicted then in 2007, where the DA would be today."

Growth

She also looked at the party's growth since the country achieved democracy.

"We grew from 338 000 votes in 1994 to over four million last year. In the process the DA has become the most non-racial party that the country ever had.

 "Believe me, we have only just begun," she said, and then joked that she would sing The Carpenters song with the same name, if she could.

"This congress heralds a turning point not just for the DA but for South Africa. As we approach the 2016 elections - we are knocking on the door."

"This congress marks the start of a new era for South Africa."

She said the ANC was shrinking at every election, while the DA kept on growing.

"They have nothing left to offer... they are stuck in the past and cannot win the future."

On the cusp

She said the party was on the cusp of capturing the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality in the forthcoming local government elections.

"That tribute to the world's most revered leader is almost within reach. But, we will still invent that future."

"There is no easy walk to freedom... and must not pretend that is easy now," she said echoing Mandela's famous quote.

She said the party was in a race against time to rescue state institutions from a few in government who were abusing them to try and protect themselves.

She also called on the party to support her replacement in the same way it had supported her.

Tribute

Several party members, friends, and family members came out earlier to pay tribute to Zille.

"She has taken our message... to the remotest reaches of South Africa. From the leafy suburbs to the dusty informal settlements," the party's federal council chair James Selfe said.

"She has grown the support of this party from 12% to nearly 24%."

He said Zille always led the party from the front.

"The DA is better off than it was before, but more importantly South Africa is better off than it was before," he said.

"We will draw on your wisdom ahead. We may even need your advice on how to dance... or maybe not," Selfe joked.

Warmth, compassion

The party's CEO Paul Boughey said Zille was characterised by her warmth, compassion and care.

"She has an almost superhuman ability to remember her staffs' names, but not only that, their partners and children's names too," he said.

Cape Town mayor and DA Western Cape leader Patricia de Lille thanked Zille's family for sharing her with the party and the rest of the country.

"Many people thought Helen and myself would not get along on government," she said.

"Where the pundits were wrong was on how well we work together. I found in her the best partner in government."

She said Zille, when she was mayor of Cape Town, was once voted as the best mayor in the world.

"I simply built further on that foundation".

'Machine of delivery'

She said Zille had turned the Western Cape government into a machine of delivery.

"Many say she is a dictator. She is not a dictator, she is a disciplinarian."

Veteran journalist Allister Sparks said he knew Zille from when she was a schoolgirl.

"I could sense that political passion. I judged her to be the best and most accurate...  She was a dead accurate reporter.

"She was a star - its journalistic folklore how she and I worked together to break the story of Steve Biko's death... "

He said he had known many intelligent politicians and many "dull and stupid ones".

"I rate Helen Zille as the smartest political tactician of all.

"Knowing when to step down is one of the most difficult decisions for a leader to make."

Zille's sons Paul and Tom Maree said they often gave her a hard time while growing up.

"It was all to harden her up to deal with the struggles ahead," Paul joked. 

He then shouted "Viva DA viva," and gleefully said: "I always wanted to do that."

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