Helen Zille: Down to the wire getting GNU done – now we must exercise patience for it to work

At BNC#2 in September 2021, DA Federal Chair Helen Zille predicted the ANC would lose its majority in 2024. At the time, most observers thought it was wishful thinking. But Zille was deadly serious, and her party has done a lot of work over the past three years preparing for SA’s new Government of National Unity, which brings the promise of a new bright chapter for the Young Democracy. Sealing the deal, however, was touch and go. In this fascinating interview where she unpacks where SA is now and what lies ahead, Zille shares that the GNU was a close-run thing, only helped over the line by unwitting EFF, which demanded a break to caucus ahead of the crucial first vote. She spoke to BizNews editor Alec Hogg.

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Highlights from the interview

In an interview with Alec Hogg from BizNews, Helen Zille, the federal chairperson of the Democratic Alliance (DA), emphasized the importance of not fracturing opposition votes, expressing frustration at the inefficacy of smaller parties gaining limited seats. She highlighted the challenges in turning around broken municipalities and dealing with hostile or incapacitated bureaucracies. Zille discussed the DA’s strong commitment to the devolution of power, advocating for more control at the local and provincial levels to improve governance and service delivery. She criticized the African National Congress (ANC) for preferring centralized control and stressed the need for a new approach to governance in South Africa.

Zille also touched on the influence of Jacob Zuma, noting that despite his controversial past, he retains significant support due to ethnic solidarity among Zulu voters. She speculated on the future political roles of Zuma’s children, Duduzile and Duduzane, suggesting they might continue his legacy. The interview concluded with Zille underscoring the complexities of coalition politics and the need for patience and strategic action to achieve meaningful change in South Africa’s political landscape.

Edited transcript of the interview ___STEADY_PAYWALL___

00:00:11:22 – 00:00:45:23

Alec Hogg: Helen Zille is the federal chairperson of the Democratic Alliance. She is recovering, no doubt, after some pretty hectic weeks that have ended up in an agreement that is being applauded all over the world, including The Economist, which said South Africa can still teach the rest of the world about democracy. We’ll find out from Helen what happens next after the formation of the Government of National Unity.

00:00:46:01 – 00:01:07:12

Alec Hogg: Well, the obvious place to start is in September 2020, when the BizNews conference in the Drakensberg, where you had a sheet of paper that you drew on. I know you gave me a hard time because you were only given 20 minutes to get it across, but you drew a triangle and you said, come 2024, the ANC will be below 50%.

00:01:07:14 – 00:01:31:18

Alec Hogg: In other words, it was three years hence. The ANC or the nation would have a choice between the Democratic Alliance and perhaps a road to prosperity and the EFF and a road to ruin. That was really where we have to start this discussion because at that point in time, people thought you were crazy.

00:01:31:19 – 00:02:05:13

Helen Zille: Yes, indeed. I mean, just see how the big forces are moving politics. And it was quite clear to me that the ANC had no foundational ideology or political philosophy or vision. And the only thing that can happen to a party when that is the case is that they fall apart. And the choice for South Africa would be between the constitutionalists and the racial populists on the other side. That characterizes the political philosophy of the DA.

00:02:05:15 – 00:02:31:08

Helen Zille: This is the political philosophy of the EFF. Well, at that stage, of course, MK was not on the scene yet. MK came onto the scene as the catalytic intervener, and when MK came onto the scene, then we had the situation of a very great strengthening of the EFF side of this triangle, and the battle was on to see where the rump of the ANC would go.

00:02:31:10 – 00:02:33:20

Helen Zille: And fortunately, they came to us.

00:02:33:22 – 00:02:55:12

Alec Hogg: If you go back those three years, clearly you had a vision. What did you do to prepare for just the 14 days that you had to do the negotiations with the ANC, which eventually led to the government of national unity? How did you prepare yourself, and indeed, did you bring others to the party at that point, like the IFP?

00:02:55:14 – 00:03:21:04

Helen Zille: Well, yes, indeed. We’ve been working with the IFP for a very long time in KwaZulu-Natal and you will know well that John put together what he called the moonshot pact, that is, multi-party, multi-party charter. It was called, we were talking about conditions and we were talking about charters and John put that together. So we did a lot to prepare to try and get our side of the seesaw with a heavier weight on it.

00:03:21:05 – 00:03:45:00

Helen Zille: That’s what we needed to get. And we did an enormous amount of preparation to do that. And so when the time came, the ANC obviously had a choice. They asked everybody to come in and speak to them. We ended up being the last man standing, if you will excuse me, using that phrase, we were the last man standing and we strategically planned it that way.

00:03:45:02 – 00:03:54:16

Helen Zille: And then we could sign this deal literally minutes before the election for the speaker began.

00:03:54:18 – 00:03:57:21

Alec Hogg: Minutes before? So it went right down to the line.

00:03:57:23 – 00:04:25:21

Helen Zille: Closer than you could ever imagine. I mean, when Judge Zondo called for nominations for the speaker, we still did not have a signed agreement between the ANC and the DA, and we still could not have been in a position to vote for Thoko Didiza as the speaker. And thank goodness Floyd Shivambu stepped up to save the day. He called for that caucus break.

00:04:25:23 – 00:05:02:02

Helen Zille: The Chief Justice was presiding and was first very determined not to grant the caucus break. I was terrified that the DA might oppose Shivambu’s request. So I was messaging them from the floor of the Cape Town International Convention Center, saying support Shivambu, support Shivambu and the Chief Justice was resolute. He was moving on and eventually Floyd Shivambu was equally resolute, which for once in our lives was a good thing, and the Chief Justice allowed what he called a comfort break for lunch.

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00:05:02:04 – 00:05:06:11

Helen Zille: And in that period, we could get the document signed. Critical.

00:05:06:12 – 00:05:28:08

Alec Hogg: What is in there to ensure that the government of national unity doesn’t fall apart? And I think this is really the big question that many people have, suggesting that, yes, it’s good where we are today, but are there any precautions that will ensure that this goes longer than the one that was from ’94 to ’97?

00:05:28:10 – 00:05:59:12

Helen Zille: Well, the ’94 to ’97 government of national unity was very much front of mind when we negotiated this one. There is a huge difference between 1994 and today. Then the ANC had a supermajority, 62%, I think it was. Now they only had 40%, and that puts them in a totally different bargaining position. And we’ve learned a lot about coalitions in the last 30 years in the DA.

00:05:59:14 – 00:06:26:08

Helen Zille: I’ve been in coalitions in the DA since 1999 in the Western Cape, and I’ve been part of managing many, many other coalitions since then. And we realized that as a smaller party in the coalition, you’re always at greatest risk. All the teachings of coalitions worldwide tell us how profoundly at risk small parties are. So we have to get the kind of framework agreement.

00:06:26:08 – 00:06:52:20

Helen Zille: We haven’t got a detailed coalition agreement, but we do have a framework agreement that sets out how decisions in government are going to be made, because from the beginning, we were absolutely determined that we would not merely be used as a crutch to keep the ANC in office, to do business as usual. We made it clear to the ANC that they did not win the election, and therefore they do not have unilateral decision-making power.

00:06:52:22 – 00:07:16:07

Helen Zille: And we put in a mechanism that defines, for the first time, sufficient consensus, which is a concept that first came up at CODESA, if you recall, in 1993. We got a proper definition in the framework agreement, which is crucial to the workings of the government of national unity. So you ask how we can be sure it will hold.

00:07:16:09 – 00:07:28:10

Helen Zille: We can’t be certain, Alec. The only thing we’ve got is the good faith of all parties to stick to the letter and the spirit of the agreement, and not just treat it as another piece of paper.

00:07:28:12 – 00:07:49:13

Alec Hogg: So what happens further down the chain? We’ve had chaos in cities, in Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, Nelson Mandela Bay, Ethekwini, and we think a similar type of partnership would surely help a great deal. Is it going to be taken down to that level?

00:07:49:18 – 00:08:12:05

Helen Zille: The first thing that must happen now is the new parliament must pass the legislation that the DA has taken, so that in 2026, when we have the next local government election, we are not in a situation where the tail can wag the dog. There have to be thresholds if you want viable coalitions. And I’m proposing, though I know we’ve put it lower in the legislation itself.

00:08:12:05 – 00:08:36:18

Helen Zille: The legislation says you need to get 1% of the vote to get any seats in the seat of government for which you’re contesting. I believe it should be 2%, and that should bring the number right down of the parties that could actually form a government. So instead of having 11-party coalitions, you must have three-party coalitions, maximum four-party coalitions, and then you can still manage the thing.

00:08:36:20 – 00:09:06:12

Helen Zille: So that is the thing that we’ve got to get right before the 2026 election. Otherwise, we’ll have the same chaos as we’re seeing in Johannesburg. But you’ll be pleased to hear that during the negotiations, the situations with local government and most particularly the metros, that is Johannesburg, Ekurhuleni, Tshwane, Nelson Mandela Bay, Ethekwini, they all came up and we said that after this is signed and sealed, we will turn to other spheres of government, particularly the metros.

00:09:06:16 – 00:09:34:18

Alec Hogg: Well, that is good news for people living in the cities. And then just to go back to one of the points that you made a moment ago about being the smaller party. We know from the news in 2010, when the Liberal Democrats in the UK went into government, because they hadn’t been in government for decades, and they even had the deputy prime minister. After that, in 2015, they fell apart.

00:09:34:19 – 00:09:51:05

Alec Hogg: They went from 58 seats to something like eight, and they are still a long way from rebuilding. Within the DA, was this an issue that you were able to find a protection against so that it doesn’t happen to you in five years’ time?

00:09:51:10 – 00:10:13:21

Helen Zille: Well, we can’t guarantee that it won’t happen to us in five years’ time. But that is why we put such emphasis on negotiating a framework agreement where we had some real leverage. And if you look at the agreement, we do have real leverage. The challenge with coalitions is that your voter base must understand that you’re going to have to make some compromises.

00:10:13:23 – 00:10:42:08

Helen Zille: That is the nature of the game. The ANC is going to have to make some big compromises, and we’re going to have to make some compromises. There are a couple of things that we made it clear that we will not compromise on. The most important thing then is to communicate and say, we’ve given up this, and they’ve given up that because getting the coalition to work with parties that have been such fierce opponents for 30 years is a challenge.

00:10:42:09 – 00:11:12:00

Helen Zille: It’s a great challenge. But there are some things that are critical to us, and the statement of intent that we signed actually, fortunately, includes some of them. The most critical is constitutionalism and the rule of law. That is non-negotiable. And parties like the MK, if they campaign against the Constitution, would by definition exclude themselves from a deal that is based on the Constitution.

00:11:12:02 – 00:11:36:21

Helen Zille: There are issues in that document like non-racialism, which is crucial to us. There are issues in that document, like a merit-based public service, which is critical to us, and a whole range of other things that are very important to both sides. As this unfolds, we’ll have to keep going back to this document. We’re based on the preamble of the Constitution.

00:11:36:23 – 00:12:05:01

Helen Zille: And we’re going to have to keep on saying this was the agreement, and this is where we draw the line. It’s not all going to be motherhood and apple pie, moonshine and roses. Definitely not. There will be some very, very tough debates. And who knows, we may leave the government of national unity at one point, because the ANC has to know that we will not be walked over.

00:12:05:03 – 00:12:30:12

Helen Zille: They did not win the election and we made that point again and again. They are the bigger party, but they cannot govern alone. And if they want to go to minority government, we don’t mind going into opposition; that’s our comfort zone. You know it very well. So we wouldn’t hesitate for a moment if they violate the letter and the spirit of our agreement to go into opposition.

00:12:30:14 – 00:12:44:08

Helen Zille: And then Cyril Ramaphosa will have to run a minority government, and he won’t last very long because there will be a motion of no confidence against him very soon. So it’s really important for them to understand the issues at stake.

00:12:44:10 – 00:13:10:15

Alec Hogg: But clearly you’re going into the conversation from a position of positivity, of working together, of hope for South Africa for the first time in quite a long, long time. The question, I guess, is how quickly South Africa can turn around. Michael Louis had an interview with Christine, my colleague, where he said that South Africa, fortunately, is not an oil tanker.

00:13:10:15 – 00:13:29:13

Alec Hogg: It’s a speedboat. It can turn quickly. Do you feel that way about the economy and are there any quick wins that are possible so that when you do get to the next election, your voters and the ANC voters don’t punish both of you for not making enough progress?

00:13:29:15 – 00:13:54:23

Helen Zille: Well, you know, expectations are sky-high. And I always do my best to dampen expectations a bit because truly, it’s difficult to turn around a government. I don’t quite agree with my colleague. I know what it was like to turn around a not-so-broken government in Cape Town when we took over in 2006, and then in the Western Cape in 2009.

00:13:54:23 – 00:14:32:18

Helen Zille: It’s very, very difficult. And as we’ve now experienced in Johannesburg and Tshwane and other places where the infrastructure of government and where officials have enabled the complete decline and unravelling of government capacity, it’s almost impossible. So I have to plead with people, you’re going to have to be patient. Cape Town looks the way it does because we’ve been in office there for nearly 20 years, and we’ve been working on this project for almost 20 years.

00:14:32:20 – 00:14:58:18

Helen Zille: In the Western Cape, it’s been 15 years, and that is what it takes. So people are going to have to be patient, hopefully, and understand that you need to get the basics right. You have to stabilize the finances, you have to uproot corruption, you have to get the right people appointed in the right places. That takes a long time in South Africa’s legal environment.

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00:14:58:20 – 00:15:30:23

Helen Zille: It takes a very long time, and people must please not have expectations that things will fundamentally change overnight. We will push them in the right direction, and we will make absolutely sure that step by step, like a young child growing up, although people will look at the child every day and can’t see it, eventually there’s a fundamental transformation. That is what it is like trying to turn around a government and trying to fix a government left in disarray.

00:15:31:01 – 00:15:56:01

Helen Zille: We’ll have to have a lot of compromises with the ANC. It’s not as if we have got an overall majority ourselves, far from it. And so when you don’t have enough votes, you can’t implement your manifesto as you would like. I think one of the key lessons that needs to come out of this election is what I’ve been emphasizing to voters ever since 2009.

00:15:56:03 – 00:16:16:19

Helen Zille: Do not fracture the opposition votes. I know that many other parties called one, two, three, four, even up to six seats. They’ll do very little with it. We could have done an enormous amount with that extra muscle in our hands.

00:16:16:21 – 00:16:29:14

Alec Hogg: You mentioned six seats, and one of the parties that has that amount is the Freedom Front Plus. They were your partners. They haven’t come into the government of national unity. Is there any particular reason for that?

00:16:29:16 – 00:16:56:17

Helen Zille: I think you’ll have to ask them. They lost 40% of their votes in this election. And the person they keep on punting as the only adult in the room didn’t get a single seat in the provincial legislature. So, you know, they’ve got a lot of rethinking to do. And it’s just so sad that all of those tiny parties only take votes from the DA.

00:16:56:18 – 00:17:22:18

Helen Zille: I mean, the Rise Mzansi party that was punted day and night by the media got good support among white, rural voters and zero support among black voters. And that is where they were supposed to have been able to make progress. This always happens. People say, well, we can’t possibly vote for a party with a white leader, and therefore we want to vote for a party that has the prospects for growth.

00:17:22:20 – 00:17:55:23

Helen Zille: And then what happens? The party that gets far more black votes than all the other small parties combined is the DA. You’ve got four black votes and all those small parties rise. The party that gets more black votes than all the other small parties combined is the DA. So the important thing to remember is that by splitting the DA’s vote through level one thinking, which is saying level one thinking in politics, you fracture and fragment the opposition votes.

00:17:55:23 – 00:18:08:11

Helen Zille: This level one thinking has seriously negative consequences for the country. We could have done very well with that extra 20 seats, a profit of around three, by not splitting the vote.

00:18:08:13 – 00:18:29:00

Alec Hogg: As the votes were being counted and it was becoming apparent how the breakdown would be, political scientist Frans Cronje said that South Africa was really set on one binary option. In fact, we’d been talking about this binary option in the election for quite some time. One way was a road to prosperity.

00:18:29:00 – 00:18:51:13

Alec Hogg: The other way is what he termed the Chernobyl option. Well, thankfully, we avoided the Chernobyl option. That road to prosperity, though, the performance of the exchange rate of the country suggests that the international community is terribly excited about this. We’ve gone from around 19 to the US dollar to below 18 to the US dollar already, and that’s only in a couple of days.

00:18:51:15 – 00:19:02:18

Alec Hogg: How long can you give us any kind of a time frame that it might take before there is concrete evidence, given the experience you had in the Western Cape and Cape Town?

00:19:02:20 – 00:19:25:01

Helen Zille: Well, the great thing about local government is that you can make progress relatively fast. And the reason for that is that you’ve got levers on things that people see and that make a difference. You can fix streetlights, you can fill potholes, you can make sure the traffic lights work. You can make sure refuse is collected. You can paint the road signs.

00:19:25:02 – 00:19:50:05

Helen Zille: All of those things make people sit up and say, oh my goodness, there really is a change happening here. And that is relatively easy to do at the local level. That’s why I could never quite understand why the ANC just doesn’t do those things in Johannesburg. Maybe all the cables have been stolen under the ground. It’s not easy to fix the streetlights, I don’t know, but in Cape Town we found it very easy pretty immediately to get some things happening.

00:19:50:10 – 00:20:22:05

Helen Zille: People could see there were fundamental changes on the road, and then it was easy for people to say, wow, this place has really changed. And then by 2009, we got a majority in the Western Cape, and then we’ve got a solid majority, an overall majority over 50%. It makes it so much easier to take complex portfolios like education, like health, like public works and all of those things and really get the basics right and push ahead.

00:20:22:06 – 00:20:45:05

Helen Zille: So it’s much better to build from the bottom up rather than the top down. Much easier to move from the bottom up rather than from the top down. And now we’ve got to the top, of course, it depends on the portfolios we can build. Some portfolios are going to take a long time, others will have much more rapid wins.

00:20:45:07 – 00:21:15:03

Helen Zille: And so it depends on the ones we get. But we have to say to people, give us time, understand that it is very difficult, often with a hostile bureaucracy or an incapacitated bureaucracy, although there are often some good people in it. It takes time to get things done, and especially when you have the problem of malicious compliance and various other things, it is extremely complex.

00:21:15:05 – 00:21:51:01

Helen Zille: So please give us time. We wished our metros had worked. You can see how hard it is to turn around a totally broken metro. When you look at Tshwane Cilliers Brink and, everyone is doing absolutely heroic work, but it should be an example of what it is like to inherit a bankrupt city with a totally broken bureaucracy, with infrastructure that is crumbling, with people who are not competent in many instances to do the job, and with hundreds of superfluous people who don’t have actual jobs to do.

00:21:51:03 – 00:22:31:04

Helen Zille: And then with an underpinning of your bureaucracy that is riddled with corruption, it is incredibly hard to turn around. He’s doing yeoman’s work in trying to do that. So, yes, fixing South Africa is not an overnight thing. We first got to try and save this agreement, and we have to make the ANC understand that if they are going to treat us as some kind of crutch to continue business as usual, we will be in a position to say no. We’re not going to be used in that way and we are going to go into opposition.

00:22:31:06 – 00:22:46:14

Helen Zille: And if you’re not prepared to play that card—and we won’t play it lightly—but we have to show that we are dead serious, then we are just going to be one of those smaller parties propping up a bigger party in a coalition that is doomed to failure.

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00:22:46:16 – 00:23:09:15

Alec Hogg: Just to close off, the big story that you have been talking about for some years now is the devolution of power, particularly to the provinces. We know that in the Western Cape, it’s been an intense frustration of the Democratic Alliance that you haven’t been able to get your hands on policing, for instance, transport, speed, rail services and so on.

00:23:09:17 – 00:23:15:21

Alec Hogg: Is that going to be a priority? Indeed. Was that even raised in your discussions on joining the government of national unity?

00:23:15:23 – 00:23:40:01

Helen Zille: We feel very strongly about devolution of power, and it is one of our most important objectives because we believe that our democracy functions much better that way. The ANC was very concerned that what we really wanted to do was make the Western Cape independent, which we said was never our goal. In fact, we want the Western Cape to have the rest of South Africa too.

00:23:40:03 – 00:24:02:09

Helen Zille: Our goal in going into this government of national unity was to make sure that the rest of South Africa benefited as well. So we’re very committed to that. The ANC is very suspicious of devolution. They like centralized control. They call it democratic centralism. So that is one of the key issues that we are going to have to go toe-to-toe on.

00:24:02:11 – 00:24:13:23

Helen Zille: It’s very important for us that capable local and provincial governments should have the power to implement the key issues that affect voters the most.

00:24:14:01 – 00:24:23:11

Alec Hogg: I’d be remiss in not asking you about Mr. Zuma and his emergence, and what that might do to the political scenario going forward. Have you any views?

00:24:23:16 – 00:24:46:23

Helen Zille: Well, Jacob Zuma is a traditionalist. I’ve been called a racist for saying so, but he is a traditionalist. I tell the truth of the matter, unpopular as it is. He was the most senior Zulu person in the field, and he pulled that traditional vote very, very strongly in KwaZulu-Natal. He got, what, 45% of the vote?

00:24:46:23 – 00:25:12:13

Helen Zille: And if you look at that map of the outcome of the election across the whole of KwaZulu-Natal, you will see just how much field Zuma won. It’s a few pockets of the IFP and the DA, but it’s almost all Jacob Zuma. That was clearly the traditional vote, and he did well in Mpumalanga too.

00:25:12:13 – 00:25:53:19

Helen Zille: And part of highlighting that was also the tradition that the Zulu speakers felt very bereft. They feel that sort of person has insulted and humiliated a very senior Zulu person who used to be the president, that is Jacob Zuma. King Goodwill Zwelithini had died in the same period. So, Zweli Mkhize had been ceremoniously pushed out of government for the Digital Vibes scandal, and the full panoply of Zulu voters felt the country to this way because of the identity solidarity among Zulu speakers in South Africa.

00:25:53:21 – 00:26:08:11

Helen Zille: And that is still a very huge factor across all groups. And that, I think, explains a lot of why, despite the fact that he brought South Africa to the brink of destruction, there’s still such support for Jacob Zuma.

00:26:08:13 – 00:26:09:14

Alec Hogg: But going forward.

00:26:09:16 – 00:26:33:16

Helen Zille: Well, we’ll have to see. Jacob Zuma is an elderly man now, although it doesn’t seem to stop him finding nice young women and having babies with them. But nevertheless, he is getting on, and the question is if he passes or if he retires, what to do? Does Duduzane Zuma have enough cachet to step up to the plate?

00:26:33:18 – 00:26:57:11

Helen Zille: Because I’m sure there would be internal democratic elections. I think it will be the dynasty story. Duduzile Zuma is very powerful, she’s very articulate, she’s intelligent, and also very beautiful, which doesn’t harm anyone in politics. And then you have Duduzane Zuma, his very suave and well-spoken son. So the two of them might form a formidable duo.

00:26:57:11 – 00:27:23:08

Helen Zille: Who knows? But there’s already huge division, as you know, from Jabulani Khumalo, who was pushed out just before the election. But that didn’t pose a ripple in support for the very simple reason that this was an ethnic solidarity vote to a large extent. People don’t like it because they attacked me when I say it, but people don’t really produce evidence to counter it.

00:27:23:10 – 00:27:28:11

Alec Hogg: Helen Zille, federal chairperson of the DA. I’m Alec Hogg from BizNews.com.

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