10 questions to Helen Zille: 'It's a fight between nationalists and liberals'

DA leader Mmusi Maimane and former Western Cape premier Helen Zille may end up working together again. Picture: Felix Dlangamandla
DA leader Mmusi Maimane and former Western Cape premier Helen Zille may end up working together again. Picture: Felix Dlangamandla

Helen Zille, the former DA leader and until recently premier of the Western Cape, is seeking to make a dramatic return to active politics and has agreed to be nominated for the position of the DA's federal chairperson. She explains to Pieter du Toit that the conflict in the party is one between racial nationalists and democratic liberals. 

1. You have been relatively inactive in DA politics since the Singapore furore and recently completed your term as Western Cape premier. Why return to active internal politics now, five months after having left office and the preceding years of leading the party?

I am really loving my new life, and wonder why I am such a masochist myself. The bottom-line is this: SA's democracy depends on a strong and growing DA. The party has been through a tumultuous period, and really needs to stabilise ahead of the 2021 local government elections, otherwise we are going to lose a lot of ground. I have the experience and approach that can bring unity and stability, and that is what the party needs more than anything else. This is a background co-ordinating role and not the leadership role.

2. What would you like to achieve as federal chairperson and how do you see that office in relation to the party leader's position?

The chair of federal council is the key co-ordinating position in the party. It is the point at which all its systems, structures, processes come together. I currently believe there is too great a load on this position, but this could change and be decentralised in different ways. The Chair of Federal Council is there to SUPPORT THE LEADERSHIP in implementing the key decisions of the Fedex and Federal Council. And that is what I will do. I can play a support role with just as much commitment as I can play a leadership role, and work towards uniting the party and healing a lot of the divides that have surfaced. I do not have to be the bride at every wedding and the corpse at every funeral.

ANALYSIS: Helen Zille may have unfinished business but would her return to DA be helpful?

3. How would you broadly characterise the state of the DA at the moment, five months after the general election in which it lost support for the very first time in its history?

The DA has been through a tumultuous and difficult period. We need to go through sincere introspection and reconnect with our voters. We need to stabilise our systems and get them working again. There is an enormous amount of background work to be done in order to re-establish this platform, and I am prepared to undertake this task.

4. The DA's support base grew exponentially at every election since 1994, when it was known as the DP, and it took advantage of prevailing circumstances in 2016 to increase its representation at local government level. Why was the party unable to build on these successes in the 2019 general election?

I hope the review panel will give us the insights we need, and I am keenly looking forward to reading their diagnosis and their proposals for solutions. In my superficial analysis, I think it is because we stopped connecting with our voters, and pursued racial nationalists who do not share the same values as ours, and who would never vote for us.

5. Has the party shown clarity and determination in dealing with the fall-out from the election? Has there, in your estimation, been a forthrightness and honesty about mistakes and shortcomings?

I think Mmusi's appointment of the review was an attempt to do just this. It was brave and the correct thing to do. Now the process must just unfold.

6. Does the party have clarity of thought on major policy matters, like the economy or job creation, for example, and has this been properly communicated to the electorate?

There has been policy confusion, particularly occasioned by the turmoil around the position of "Policy Head" and the ad hoc positions the party has taken on various issues. This has come across as contradicting ourselves. All this needs to be fixed.

7. The party seems to have been caught in a quagmire over race, diversity and representivity over the last few years. This has now evolved into a battle between seeming "classic liberals" and "progressives" in the party, with these delineations having also taken a racial undertone. What is the debate and/or conflict really about?

The narrative of the liberals vs those punting diversity is a completely false dichotomy. Liberals strongly believe in inclusion and diversity. The problem is when diversity becomes a rallying point for racial nationalism. And this seems to have crept into the party.

8. To what degree should race play a role in society when determining access to opportunity, business, education and the economy, and how do you balance that with historical inequality and the need for redress?

All of the aspects would require different answers. I believe in redress for those who continue to be disadvantaged by the legacy of the past, but that race is no longer a proxy for disadvantage. And we should, at all costs, avoid using race as a "principle" to disguise personal interest.

9. What is the central and most important issue facing the DA at this moment? How can the party fix itself and how much time does it have?

The single and most important internal issue is the clash between racial nationalism and democratic liberalism. The most important external issue is the economy, and what it will take to create jobs.

10. Can and should Mmusi Maimane continue as leader of the party, given its poor performance at the recent polls?

The Review Panel was set up with a wide mandate, and from what I have picked up in the media, will address this issue.

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