Helen Zille: I am actually a softie

No one tells you how hard the premier’s job is. Picture: Lerato Maduna
No one tells you how hard the premier’s job is. Picture: Lerato Maduna

Despite clashing with the DA, she remains a member of the party and wants Mmusi Maimane to be the most successful leader this country has ever seen

In less than a month Helen Zille will vacate the office of the premier in the Western Cape, a position she will have held for 10 years in the only province not governed by the ANC after she led the DA to victory in 2009.

“I didn’t think we would win outright, we were polling at about 47%, 48%.

“So I didn’t think that we would win outright and I knew there was a jolly good chance that we wouldn’t but I was quite ready to put together a coalition,” she says, recalling the moment.

“The first person I called would most likely have been my husband. He has been my constant sounding board, companion, partner through everything. Through the disappointments of politics, through the very hard knocks of politics, he keeps the ship steady in the water.”

Zille balances a tray laden with a cup of tea, some sweeteners and an apple. It is a few minutes after 7am.

Not having to do early morning interviews is one thing she says she will not be missing about the job.

Between taking sips of the tea, she brushes her hair down as if fearing that bits of it are misbehaving.

Worrying about how her hair looks in pictures is another thing she will not miss.

In a rare show of emotion, she appears to choke back tears when asked if she has any advice for the next premier, Alan Winde, if the DA can hold on to the province.

She takes a long pause before saying: “No one said it was easy but no one will ever tell you how hard it is going to be. The hardest thing is when your opponents come after your children to get at you.

“I have already told him that; I have even written to his family and said ‘you don’t know how ghastly it is going to be’.”

Read: Mkhebane find Mbalula, Zille violated ethics code

Although her public persona is tough, Zille says she is actually “a softie”.

“I have sometimes thought to myself, ‘am I called all these nasty names because I am a woman?’ But I don’t like to default to seeing myself as a victim. I have never seen myself as one ...

“Sometimes I wonder when I take a very firm position, people call me ‘abrasive’, they call me, ‘stubborn, combative.’ I haven’t heard men being called those words but I am not saying it is because I am a woman.

“Interestingly, I do not consider myself abrasive and combative but maybe you should ask people who work around me.”

Any regrets?

“Perhaps but you don’t know how hard it is to survive in this terrain. If you haven’t got some steel in your backbone you won’t survive and if you cannot push through sometimes against all the odds you can’t win. There are many times I have had to do that and often alone.”

It’s likely to be her tweets that will remain etched in the minds of many.

“You know if the worst thing you can ever say about me in my term is that I told the truth, I told inconvenient truths, it is all right I can live with that,” she says taking on somewhat of a defensive tone.

The now infamous – and ongoing tweets – led to a fallout between herself and her party, more specifically with the man who she anointed to succeed her, Mmusi Maimane.

Despite the ugliness which followed her disciplinary hearing, Zille remains a member. She is confident that the party will continue to grow.

“We are seeing the resurrection of racial nationalism in our country. It is highly retrogressive and I think it will take South Africa down a cul-de-sac. We will eventually come to realise that but the cost will be high. And I am very sad that we are going to have to go down that path, very sad, before we achieve the vision of our Constitution.

“So I think the DA will grow more slowly in the years ahead inevitably, but as long as we survive and keep on fighting for those who genuinely believe that South Africa belongs to all who live in it and that power must be held to account and that the state must be independent to a party.

“As long as we keep those values alive, I see huge prospects going forward although obviously less rapidly than we have seen in the past 10 years.”

In advising Maimane she quotes Theodore Roosevelt, who was also quoted by President Cyril Ramaphosa during his state of the nation address earlier this year.

“Keep on keeping on. It is a tough road, don’t take critics that seriously. They aren’t in the arena. You are the man in the arena, you will be surrounded by or face the lions, surrounded by critics who all tell you how you should be doing it, keep on keeping on.”

As the interview comes to an end, I ask if there is anything she wants to add.

“Yes there is. If you lead on the context of Zille says that the worst thing was to tell the truth on colonialism then I won’t be happy.

“The last thing I wanted to do in this world is harm the DA, the very last thing I want to do in this world is harm Mmusi Maimane. I want to do everything I can to make him the most successful leader this country has ever seen.”

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