Donaldson at best: Helen Zille sure to be “in shit” over these disclosures.

andrew donaldson
Andrew Donaldson

A good interviewer, the late David Frost shared, is not just someone who researches fastidiously so they can ask the right questions. More important, he said, is getting the subject to relax. And to listen. That way a real person occasionally emerges from the overtrained cardboard cut-outs dished up by highly paid PR firms. I’ve no idea whether Andrew Donaldson is a fellow Frost disciple, but he certainly achieves the remarkable in the big interviews. His engagement with RW Johnson is a classic, having been read on Biznews by more than 200 000 people since it was published in June 2015. Today’s interview with former journalist and Western Cape Premier Helen Zille is cut from the same cloth. Zille readily admits she will be “in shit” for some of the things she admits to Donaldson during their frank discussion ranging from some rather wild early behaviour through to equally controversial interactions with the very famous in later years. The Helen Zille I know is deeply spiritual and incredibly courageous. That’s about the only part of her life Donaldson doesn’t cover in this absolutely superb contribution which appeared first on – Alec Hogg    

By Andrew Donaldson

LATE Friday afternoon, and an exhausted-looking Helen Zille is sprawled across a sofa in a reception room at Leeuwenhof, the official residence of the Western Cape premier. 

It has been a busy week — the day before Zille had launched the Western Cape’s Apprenticeship Game Changer programme, the province’s ambitious plan to introduce some 32 500 qualified and skilled workers into the labour market by 2019 — and, with her memoir, Not Without a Fight: The Autobiography (Penguin) to promote, the days ahead will no doubt be even busier.

“In this book,” she says, “I have blown the lid off how politics really operates. Dirty tricks? I could write the definitive manual. The definitive manual! In some cases, people have told me that it reads like a political thriller.”

This is no idle boast. In this respect, the book is an eye-opening stonker, an unsparingly candid and often witheringly funny account of the treachery behind the scenes of our public life — especially among the sack of snakes that are some of her colleagues in the Democratic Alliance. 

Photo courtesy of Twitter @Radio702
Photo courtesy of Twitter @Radio702

Politics is a grubby business. But even so, here is skullduggery and a lust for power of the sort that is perhaps more characteristic of the excesses and of imperial Rome. Thriller it certainly is, with all the makings of an engrossing of a movie or, given the sheer scale of what unfolds here, a television series. 

The book, incidentally, takes its title from one such drama, the hit TV series Borgen, which tells how the fictional leader of a minority party becomes the first woman prime minister of Denmark as a result of a compromise coalition following a closely-fought election. The parallels may or may not be obvious. However, given the atavism of Not Without a Fight’s sprawling cast, if it were a TV series, it would be a farcical mash-up of West Wing and Game of Thrones

For sheer cliched, B-movie  badassedness, it’s unlikely Hollywood could ever come up with a character quite like Badhi Chaaban, the controversial floor-crossing councillor allegedly linked to slain underworld figures Cyril Beeka and Yuri “the Russian” Ulianitski. Chaaban, who topped the list of the many enemies Zille made as Cape Town mayor, was straight out of central casting for a cheap mafiosi hood. She writes:

“His trademark duckbill cap disguised his receding hairline. His greying three-day stubble had the opposite effect on his jowls, which curved like parentheses below a jutting lower lip. He often enhanced his looks with accessories, such as a cigar drooping from the corner of this mouth, and a gorgeous blonde from his arm. I learnt her name was Diana. She was in her early twenties, about the same age as Badhi’s daughter, Lee. Diana had married the rough-talking Lebanese immigrant after a whirlwind courtship of three months. She spoke only Russian, and I shuddered to speculate what circumstances had brought her from a village somewhere in the former Soviet Union to seek a better life in Cape Town…

“Badih … was the major funding conduit for the African Muslim Party, channeling money from dubious sources. He described himself as Muslim, but was also a self-confessed compulsive gambler and heavy drinker, who boasted about his links with the Cape Town underworld’s most notorious figures. His favourite recreational activity outside of strip clubs and gambling dens, was smoking a strong form of dagga called hydroponics. He considered a sentence incomplete without at least one expletive.”

Zille is as blunt when discussing her experiences with those politicians who may be considered to be more salubrious establishment figures. She fell out with Tony Leon, for example, over his dealings with the New National Party. The spectacular blow-out with an imperious Lindiwe Mazibuko, then a rising star within the DA, is handled at some length, as is the personally painful ding-dong with former staunch ally but increasingly delusional Mamphela Ramphele ahead of the 2014 elections. Zille pulls no punches here. Many of them are aimed at herself. 

Elsewhere, she details the resistance encountered by the DA as it attempted to campaign in the townships. Some of it is profoundly unsettling. The South African National Civic Organisation, for example, even set up a kangaroo court to deal with those township residents who supported the DA. 

“There are two categories of people who’re going to be highly offended by the book,” she says. “One category is the people in the book, and the other category is the people who’re not in the book. I’ve said tough things. But true things.”

* * * * *

IN her preface, Zille writes that the book is the story of the two main strands in her life — the political and the personal. She is as unsparing in dealing with the latter as the former. 

Born in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, on March 9, 1951, she is the eldest child of parents who separately left Germany to avoid Nazi persecution. She later discovered that many of her family members were not so lucky and were murdered in the camps. Her parents were not wealthy and she was raised in what was in Rivonia, in those days a rural backwater. 

The young Otta Helene was something of a rebel. As a nine-year-old, she defies her mother to visit friends at night — and is apprehended by a police patrol at 3am. As a teenager, she takes up smoking, becomes addicted to current affairs — she is in particular thrall of the writings of the neighbour who’d eventually be her boss, Rand Daily Mail editor Allister Sparks — and has a regular boyfriend at the age of 14.

She loved journalism. “I felt my work had a purpose,” she writes, “that my articles would deprive South Africans of the excuse, so often used by Germans after the war, that they ‘did not know’ what was really going on.”

Journalism was something of a game-changer for the young woman whose life, up to that point, had been fraught with insecurities. Because she craved attention from the opposite sex, she had, as a student, starved herself and developed anorexia, a condition she battled with for more than a decade. 

Read also: Respected Helen Zille: Not being liked comes with serving righteous cause.

At the RDM, though, she found that she had all the attention from men she ever wanted — which was problematic. “Sexual harassment was, like anorexia previously, a nameless condition, but it was rife, and generally accepted as a manifestation of the sexual revolution.” She writes that on almost every occasion that she covered a long-running story, some man — usually married — would pitch up her flat at all hours of the night hoping to have sex. 

Often they got what they came for. She writes:

“At the time, I thought of rape as something that happens when a stranger jumps out at you in a deserted car par or dark alley. There is no word to describe sex coerced by a friend, colleague or acquaintance. This happened more often than I care to remember, from Cape Town to Windhoek and Lusaka, and I never once complained to my editors. If I did, I thought, it would be the last time I would be sent on a good assignment; they would consider sending a woman reporter too much of a liability. If I wanted to pursue a career in journalism, I told myself, it was just an occupational hazard I had to learn to live with.”

This, she tells me, was the reality of working women at the time — being hit on constantly by their male colleagues.

“Constantly, constantly, constantly. And you see, what confused the whole story, was that it was the Sixties, and everyone was supposed to be getting liberated, right? But no-one had drawn the line yet, about being liberated and being able to say ‘No’, so there was this kind of free love era and if you didn’t go for that, then there was something wrong with you and you were still stuck in Victorian times.”

She gave in, then? Submitted to their demands? Acquiesced?

“Oh, yes, quite a lot, quite a lot. And … well, this is going to get me into huge trouble with the feminists today — you know, I don’t need another fight on my hands — but … it wasn’t nice. It was grim. Whatever, whatever. But I can honestly say, I’m not scarred, or damaged by it, or whadda whadda whadda, 

“I’m going to get into shit for it, but I have to write the truth. I went through these things. Men wanted to have sex with me. Some of them forced me into it. I didn’t like it, I was angry, but I thought, let’d get over it. Move on. Which is what I did. And, quite frankly…”

She breaks off, shrugging.

“The bottom line is this. It was that terrible interregnum between the Free Love era and the notion that women still had choices and I think that women’s rights had been far more suppressed in that era than they had been in Victorian times in terms of making choices about sex.”

Zille’s big story on the RDM was, of course, the killing of Steve Biko. Her investigation had revealed that the Black Consciousness leader had died, not as a result of a hunger strike or dehydration as the then justice minister Jimmy Kruger had alleged, but from brain damage. “We knew the story would reverberate,” she writes, “but even I was surprised by the earthquake that followed.”

An apoplectic Kruger threatened to ban the newspaper and demanded a Press Council hearing the very day the report appeared. It began that evening, before Mr Justice Oscar Galgut, who ruled in favour of the minister — and found Zille guilty of “tendentious and misleading reporting”. She was devastated.

“It was terrible,” she says. “I offered [Allister Sparks] my resignation. I mean, when a judge has said to you, that you’re a tendentious and something else reporter, I felt I’d never have credibility again. I went to him and offered to resign and he said, ‘Are you crazy?’”

Looking back, though, this was something of a badge of honour, not so?

“Yes, and that’s how Allister saw it, then, already. We knew what the facts were. We knew there was nothing tendentious about it. And there was nothing malicious about it. We knew it was absolutely honest and true. But I was raised to really respect the rule of law. I was brought up to believe that there was no one more important than a judge in society and judges are these unbelievable people, up there, next to God. 

“You know, if a judge is calling you tendentious and malicious? The way I was brought up, there’s no hope for you, then you are doomed. I offered my resignation. I thought I can’t do this to the Rand Daily Mail, have this awful piece of humanity writing for it.”

She did eventually resign. Once Sparks had been dismissed, she writes, she lost her passion for journalism — and rediscovered it in activism. She was active in the Black Sash at the time of the formation of the United Democratic Front in August 1983. She was then a young mother, married to UCT academic Johann Maree. And so began the slow drift towards a political career with the then Democratic Party under Tony Leon’s leadership.

* * * * *

THERE’S an amusing anecdote in the book about Murphy, the family’s Staffordshire terrier. When it was a puppy, the dog devoured an entire pork roll raw which had been knocked from the kitchen table by a cat. Murphy was found in extreme agony,  with an enormously swollen belly. He had to be rushed to the vet, who managed to save his life. But it was a close call.

“This,” Zille writes, “roughly describes what happened to the DP in our attempts to incorporate the NNP.” This was barely less than a year after the 1999 elections, and she was now serving as the Western Cape’s education MEC.

“They were much bigger than we were,” she says of the NNP. “We thought, naively as anything, that we would merge and we would all abide by the political philosophy of the open society for all and put racial nationalism behind us. Of course, it doesn’t work that way, let me tell you. And it was almost so ingrained in the old NP people, this racial way of working, that we had to fight really hard.” 

Many would argue that this racial nationalism endures, in one form or another.

“Of course. It’s a South African default. South Africans default to race. And South Africans of all races default to victimhood. We love being victims. Everyone wants to be a victim in South Africa. Black, white, male, female, whatever. We like that. We like feeling hard done by.”

Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane looks on at the result center in Pretoria, South Africa August 4, 2016. REUTERS/Siphiwe Sibeko
Democratic Alliance leader Mmusi Maimane

Was it galling, entering into an alliance with the old Nationalists?

“I actually supported it,” she replies, “because I was so battling to get governance according to our value set. I thought that once we were one party, with the DP in charge through Tony Leon, we’d be in a much better position to assert our value set, but it didn’t turn out that way in the Western Cape.”

It later turned out that way in Cape Town, though?

“Well, it turned out that way when when we managed to turn the tables, when I was elected mayor.”

There’s a delightful account in the book of those first thrilling moments: “The outgoing [ANC] mayor’s spokesperson rushed dow the corridor [at the Civic Centre], yelling into her cellphone, ‘Cancel the champagne, cancel the champagne!’”

“Coalition politics, as you see in the book, is very difficult,” she says. “But when you merge with a party, then that’s even more difficult. Because when you merge then each party is trying to maintain its own identity. Everything in politics has to be filtered through the prism of how candidates are selected for election and then people mobilise in particular groups and it gets vicious.”

We turn to the current mayor, Patricia de Lille. 

“Well, Patricia [then the leader of the Independent Democrats] didn’t want to come into our coalition. It was obvious to me that a DA-ID coalition was the way to go, in the beginning, and for a reason that I’m not fully understanding to this day, she rejected that and decided to go with the ANC — even though she did not have a balance of power with the ANC. She could only form a government by coming with us. She couldn’t form a government with the ANC because they didn’t have enough seats together. We, with all the other tiny parties, did have enough. But it would have made much more sense for the ID and the DA to get their act together right from the start and she would have gotten much more out of it, you know? But we had to do it in a more complex way, as you can see. We first had to do the coalition with six other parties. That had to fall apart when I fired the AMP [Africa Muslim Party]. Then the ID came on board [in 2010].”

Mayor Patricia de Lille
Patricia de Lille

Is she a good mayor?

“Let’s talk about the book.”

We turn, instead, to the president, Jacob Zuma. Despite the many public and sometimes vitriolic clashes she’s had with him, she reveals that he is always unfailingly pleasant to her. As she told her husband, “He’s nicer to me than almost everyone in the DA.”

“I have a very genial relationship with Jacob. One on one. He’s a charmer. Have your read the section where he asked me to dance?”

I had. It was at a braai at the president’s residence in 2009. He is the product of Arthur Murray’s dancing classes and led. She claims she nearly tripped him. Dancing, I say, is something her family suggests she should never attempt.

“Oh, absolutely. I think Jacob Zuma thought that as well when he finished dancing with me.”

What’s your relationship with Mamphele Ramphele like now?

“I haven’t seen her since [the disastrous attempt to get her to join the DA]. I was really very badly burnt by that. You could see the backwardsing and forwardsing, backwardsing and forwardsing, and you know, on the fourth occasion. . .”

You had no idea this was coming?

“No. When I worked with her at [the University of Cape Town], she was decisive, she could listen to a range of positions, take a position, then move ahead on it. I just don’t know what happened to her.”

You write that that was your biggest mistake. Did you feel you’d come back from that?

“Well, actually, I was trying to work myself out of the leadership at that stage. Which I felt was essential for the party at that point, that I step back, because I felt that I’d taken the party as far as I could potentially take it, and it wasn’t really whether I would be destroyed or come back from that, because I was trying to get out, not come back, if you know what I mean.”

Which brings us to that other setback, Lindiwe Mazibuko.

Lindiwe Mazibuko
Lindiwe Mazibuko

“She left because she knew she was going to lose the election to be parliamentary leader. You see, the plan, as I understood it, was that she would go to Harvard for a year, then come back and slot in, and then challenge again, so that she would be saved the ignominy of defeat. She’d come back to a caucus led by somebody else. And that was Mamphele. And Mamphele would be out after five years, because she would have got the position when she was about 68. So at about 73 she would have been ready to step back. Then Lindiwe would have been perfectly poised. That was the strategy. So she wasn’t going to leave permanently.”

Then the job went to Maimane. What, I ask, of the charges of window-dressing that appear to dog the DA’s parliamentary leader? You write of a Catch-22 situation here.

“That’s why I made this very particular point about Mmusi. He had all the particular attributes [we needed in a leader], and he was black. And I was saying we get attacked if we don’t diversify, and yet if we do diversify we get attacked. His being black is an important factor. It is an important factor. But if he was only black, with none of the other attributes, he wouldn’t stand a chance. It’s the full package you’re looking at.”

Surely I suggest there were other, more experienced politicians, who were also the “full package”. I mention the name of a much older caucus member. Helen looks at me astonished. 

“I’m not saying anything,” she says. “And please don’t say that I raised my eyebrows.”

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