Meet the real Helen Zille: DA’s Iron Lady lifts veil at Christian gathering. Fascinating.

LONDON — After a life of high-stakes wrestling, at 66, the last thing Cape Provincial Premier Helen Zille needs right now is another fight. But she refuses to lie down after being accused of harbouring “colonialist” attitudes by the political party she helped to build. Zille’s crime stems from a series of tweets where she praised the Singaporean economic miracle, suggesting that not everything imposed during the colonial era was destructive. For the rational mind, what she opined is obvious. But as Rian Malan articulated in a brilliant assessment of the issue, the new South Africa’s wounds are too raw to engage sensibly on emotive issues like colonialism. In the hullabaloo that has followed, few have reflected on the timing of the outrage at Zille’s tweet. It came at a time when her political enemies were desperate to find a distraction to a national crisis that resulted in a respected Finance Minister being fired in a midnight cabinet reshuffle.So why doesn’t Zille graciously leave the political stage, and step aside so that her beloved Democratic Alliance can take advantage of its opponent’s weakness? Why does she keep on fighting? The DA’s Iron Lady possesses deep convictions that stem from her faith. That shines through in the transcription of a talk she did at a recent event hosted in Cape Town by ROTOP (Round Table of Prayer) whose David Melvill posed the questions. What emerges is a side to Zille few have been exposed to. Fascinating. And serious food for thought for those using an overblown “scandal” to pursue their own expedient agendas. – Alec Hogg

Helen, your book “Not Without a Fight” carries a very appropriate title…… Why did you write it before the end of your political career? 

Helen Zille’s book Not Without a Fight.

Well, that’s true. I have to add another chapter about this particular fight that I’m having now because it’s going to turn out, I think, to be a very important one and quite a catalytic one in South Africa’s history. I’m getting quite close to the end of the print run on this one, so maybe they’ll allow me to add another chapter at the end when this storm has blown over. But there’s no doubt that this debate is critical.

But let me answer your question. The first reason that I wrote my book was because Penguin Random House approached me and asked me to do so. They said, “We want to run your biography and we’d like you to write it” and I said, “Well, I haven’t finished my political career yet, I’ve just stepped down from the leadership in the Democratic Alliance, but I’m still the Premier of the Western Cape and I think I should rather write my memoirs when I have finished”. They said, “No, you’re fresh in the public mind now, you will inevitably fade from public consciousness because people have very short memories in a few years and this is the right time to be writing your memoirs” and they persuaded me to at least start.

I thought, well I’ll finish it in two years’ time, so that’ll be fine and at least I will have started and put my mind to it and I was planning to put in about 1.5 hours a day into it, get up early, spend an hour and a half writing and then get on with the rest of the day at work. “Well”, they said, “We would like this book to be finished by the end of 2016”. I knew that by then I would still have two years to go to be the Premier, so I said, “Look, you know I can’t possibly do that”. They said, “No, you must” and they gave me about 300 reasons why it was essential. So, I said, “Okay, I’ll give it a go”.  So, I looked the amount of time I had to do on the book, which I then did.

Then they contacted me and said, “No, actually we need it to be ready by July 2016 and the final deadline after all of the moving back of the deadline, was the end of April 2016 because of the fact that they were thinking that their competitors were going to produce other books on very interesting, but parallel topics and at the end of the year, people don’t’ have much disposable income to buy more than one book, they calculate on and they wanted my book to be out on the shelves before the other ones. Needless to say, the other ones still haven’t come out yet, but I made my deadline and my book was out in October last year. It was very good to be able to sit down with great discipline every morning.

The scene in our bedroom was, I’d wake up very early, put my lap desk on my lap and start writing with that tiny little focus light, my husband would be lying next to me with his, what we call black eyes on, so that no light got anywhere near him, he’d snore away and I would be writing my book. When he woke up, either of us would get the tea and he would read the Bible and I would write my book and the scene with him I will never ever forget.

Helen Zille’s Twitter storm. More magic available at

Every now and again, he’d say, “Are you ready to hear this?” and then he’d read to me and I’d have to stop writing and then he’d carry on. So, that was the kind of context and that is why I wrote the book, but getting into it, I realised that there was a big story to tell and I thought it was good to write it down when I did, when a lot of people were still around that I could discuss things with, that I could get their reflections and their memories on. When those people are not around anymore, it’s very, very hard to pull it all together. That’s the answer.

How did your family background shape your life?

Both my parents came to South Africa, not as colonialists, but as really penniless refuges from Germany. They were both half Jewish. My father’s mother was Jewish, my father’s father was Protestant and in my mother’s case it as vice versa, her mother was Protestant, her father was Jewish and of course, Hitler first went, well went for everyone, I mean, it was enough for Hitler if you had one grandparent who was Jewish because Hitler’s view was that you couldn’t be Jewish by choice, it was a genetic aberration and he had to get rid of all the Jews in Europe to ensure that this genetic aberration was discontinued by genocide. At Wannsee they dropped a list of 11-million Jews that had to be killed across Europe, so it would have definitely been my whole family’s turn. My parents managed to get out, but it was very, very difficult to get out.

My father got out early enough in 1934, my mother had to wait till 1939, but most of my father’s family died in the holocaust and I found out how, for the very first time, when I went to Yad Vashem, which is the research centre on the holocaust in Jerusalem and they did a major research project for me and put together, I don’t know how they got all of the records, but absolutely every single record where some of my direct relatives, uncles, and aunts died in Minsk, in Auschwitz, in Buchenau, in Tunisienstadt and in all of the other places where the concentration camps were and where they were murdered. So, obviously that was my father’s experience and he came here as a German, he worked as a manual labourer, no education in the Modderfontein Dynamite Factory.

When South Africa went to war, they obviously couldn’t have Germans working in the strategic installation, so he was fired and for years he works as a bread and milk deliverer. That’s what he did and then he educated himself through UNISA slowly, started his own small business and turned it into a success and didn’t do that by getting favourable tenders from government and various other things, believe me. He ended up employing quite a number of people who had jobs because of what he did and he literally did that from absolutely nothing.

My mother became a midwife, suffered very seriously from depression and my sister has a serious disability. All of those things were woven into our lives, but the great thing was, as I keep stressing, my parents left me a wonderful legacy, but the most important one was never to see yourself as a victim, never and always to stand up against the oppression of others and those were the two most important legacies they left me and that has shaped my life.

You are busy fighting a new battle, but what has been your biggest life’s battle up to now?

My personal biggest life’s battle was beating anorexia when I was a teenager. I was a little bit plump, like I am today and happily plump today, but I wasn’t happily plump then. It was the era of Twiggy, it was the era of really skinny women with jutting collar bones and all that sort of thing and I just wanted to be like that and when I get determined, I get determined and I’ve particularly not got long, thin legs, which is what I wanted. I was never going to elongate them unfortunately, but I thought I was going to reduce the circumference. So, I went on a diet and being like I am, I worked it out and I then stopped eating and couldn’t reverse that.

Western Cape Premier Helen Zille

They didn’t know of anorexia in those days, so I was operated on and this and that and the doctors didn’t know what it was about, even though, I think it was more common than people actually realised. They just hadn’t given it a name, but it took me about ten years to get over it and it was my life’s biggest battle and I could not have done that without a very strong faith developing within me and I had to give over control beyond me and that is where I developed the root of my Christian faith. I had been to a Christian school and my mother was Protestant and very deeply spiritual, I would say, but to get over that huge struggle in life, I had to find something beyond me that could help me.

Tell us briefly about your role as you see it in government and your years of political activism.

Well, political activism was a thing I grew up with. My father had joined the Torch Commando when he came to South Africa. For those who are not old enough to know what the Torch Commando is, it was a group of people who rejected racial nationalism and who wanted a common South Africa. My father writes about it very warmly in his memoirs. So, my father joined the Torch Commando and ended up in hospital for his troubles when somebody confronted him and biffed him on the nose. There’s even a picture in the Transvaaler or this big running battle that happened at a meeting of the Torch Commando, where it was broken up.

My mother was probably one of the very earliest members of the Black Sash and she didn’t go and work for a salary, she went and worked every single day in the Black Sash advice office and when she came home, she would say to us, “Well, this is what I worked on today, so I would hear stories that I think 90% of white South Africans never heard and so I grew up with that political consciousness, also reading lots of newspapers. My parents always brought home the Rand Daily Mail, my father drove me to school almost every single morning and we had a long drive to school, so he used to ask me, “Well, what’s going on in the world?” He’d make me read the newspaper and I summarise it for him – all the issues that were going on in the world and I became quite addicted to it.

I remember waiting for the next day’s newspaper as if it was like people wait for series on the television. We didn’t have television obviously in those days, amazingly enough. My sons asked me if we had dinosaurs in those days, I said “No”, but I used to really wait till the point that we could buy the Rand Daily Mail and he’d say to me, “Well, pick up the story from yesterday form this” and then I’d pick up the story and I’d say this and this and this and then he’d talk to me really intelligently about it. I remember, (we came off the Gold Standard, I can’t remember, who it was), when the Gold Standard started to float. It must have been in 1967, somewhere around there and my father had a long discussion with me about why that was significant for South Africa because he’d studied economics by correspondence and then I remember the UDI in Rhodesia and my father would discuss all of the issues.

So, I grew up with these discussions in the car and I understood the issues and I always summarised it for my dad. I got quite good at summarising things. Then I started reading the political commentary more and more and I decided I wanted to be a journalist, I wanted to write this stuff. That’s how I ended up in journalism and how I ended up, eventually in political activism, which was your question because I became a journalist for the Rand Daily Mail. It was very competitive, but I did get in. I was the only woman on the course of six that got in because we had to have a big general knowledge test and I did very, very well obviously, in the general knowledge test on current news because I read it every day and then I saw many things.

Then I saw forced removals, I saw the implications of the pass laws, I saw really terrible things and when Sparks  was fired I stood down from the Rand Daily Mail and I then went into fulltime political activism and also joined the Black Sash and the End Conscription Campaign and the Open City Initiative and all of those. I spent all of my life working on those things, had my two boys, they went to Grove Primary School eventually, but they grew up almost in the townships, my office child. He was always there and he loved it because all the other little kids used to come out and he had soft, soft hair and all the other kids used to stroke his hair all the time and feel his hair and they played in mud puddles and he’d love it and when I picked him up to take him home, he’d scream the whole way.

I don’t know what people think I did to my child when I took him away but nevertheless he would shout like anything because he loved it so much. I became a political activist and then I started my own public policy company where I wrote public policy. I was chairperson for the governing body of my children’s primary school. I helped write up the New South African School’s Act, which was a good piece of legislation at the beginning of our democracy with Peter Hunter who was the main author, but I contributed quite a lot to the point that it was acknowledged in the draft bill and the first thing the government did was to break its own law with the voluntary severance package and redeployment scheme, which I knew was going to be disastrous, especially for state and education and especially for the poorer schools. I knew it was going to be completely disastrous for them.

I won’t go into the reasons now, but I said so and of course then I was called a racist. It was the very first time that it ever happened to me and everybody knew that I had hid people running away from the police in the 1980’s and everything and I was a racist. I was so shocked that people could call me that at the time. Now they call me that every day and I just think ag. Anyway, I said, “This is going to really come back to bite you, look at the implications”. The government wouldn’t listen. I put together 80 schools, we fought it in court, and we won. The court said, “This law is irrational and the constitutional test is rationality” and we could prove the law was irrational. Then the government did exactly what the old National Party government had done, they went and changed the law to enable them to do what they wanted to, which the court had thrown out.

I went to a standing committee sitting in Parliament discussing the proposed amendments to the South African School’s Act. I was so appalled by what I saw there. This is the future of the South African school system you are talking about. People would arrive with their papers still in the envelope unopened, no preparation, no reading, and no analysis. They would come there and they would sit there and about two or three people would contribute, mostly without having read the documents, I could hear. There was one person and one alone, Mike Ellis from the Democratic Party who got up again and again on every clause and said, “The implication of this is this, don’t’ do it” and of course, he was called a racist and somebody who tried to protect white privilege and blah di blah and the only time anybody showed any interested was when the food trolley was wheeled in.

Be that as it may, it’s all described in my book and I said, “No, I have to now get into this arena to fight for the future of public education, I have to do that”. I wrote a lot in the newspapers, as David said, Tony Leon wrote to me and said, “Will you take a look at the DP’s education policy?” I said, “I will with pleasure”. I looked at it, I said, “Look, it needs a whole recasting”. He said, “Would I do it?” I said, “Fine,” I did. He took it to their federal council, it was accepted, it became the DP’s education policy and then Tony asked me to stand for their list, (which was a highly competitive process as it in the DA, the DP then) and I managed to get in at number five and Tony then said, “Well, we’ll probably have the balance of power and if we do, I would really like you to be the Provincial Minister of Education.” So, I said, “We’ll, let’s see”.

Anyway, as things happened, we did have the balance of power. I got in by 0.005% of the vote on the remainder, that’s on the proportional system works. It was literally, if a hundred people had stayed away from the polls that day, I wouldn’t have gotten elected. It as a tiny percentage, we had the balance of power by one seat, which happened to be mine, we could bargain very hard for positions and I did get the Minister of Education position. So, from, being a mommy on the governing body to becoming the Minister of Education took all of six months and I had to sit there and think, “What the hell did I do now”, which is what I’ve thought a number of times in my life. Anyway, so that’s how I got into politics, David and it went from there. Everyone knows, you’ve read my biography, you told people, I think you told them.

I love the story when you were here last time when you told us about your husband Johann Maree and you having your cup of coffee early morning in bed. You open your newspaper to scan for the stories of the day and Johann has his Bible open and he’s scanning to see what the Lord has to say and then when you’ve finished your various reading of passages, you exchange notes. 

That’s exactly what happened, but David, he doesn’t only read the Bible, remember. Every time I’m in trouble he goes to the library and comes back with a big pile of books like this because he’s researched the topic. “Aha”, he said, “Look all these guys have said exactly the same as you have, so look at these passages that I’ve found for you.”

File Photo: Mmusi Maimane, parliamentary leader of the Democratic Alliance, center, and Helen Zille, party leader of the Democratic Alliance, right, join Democratic Alliance lawmakers at a protest against President Jacob Zuma’s failure to answer questions in the legislature, outside the National Assembly in Cape Town, South Africa. Photographer: Mike Cohen/Bloomberg

Wow, it helps having a husband who is as professor of sociology?

It certainly does and a great reader of the Bible.

Helen was telling us earlier around the table that her husband is such a gentle man and he loves reading his Bible. He reassures her regularly about what God is saying through the scriptures and encourages her, so you couldn’t have asked for a better husband.

That is true, but one of the most fascinating stories in this book is how I met him, the circumstance of how I met him and what I had to do because my parents were already on their way to my marriage to someone else in New York, so yes, there’s romance there as well.

You’ve touched on a bit on the early aspirations as a journalist, what then made you make this transition from journalism to formal representative politics?

Well, after that, it was completely by accident and I did that, yes.

Good, I wanted to quickly make a detour here. We have someone here who is an old school friend of yours, who sat next to you writing Matric exams.

Naughty you.

Let’s just quickly pick it up here.

Can I identify, or are you going to do that in the punchline?

Yes, you can identify, tell us the story please.

That’s Jane Wroughton, (over there) who was at school with me and she’s now Jane Verster-Cohen. Jane and my school friends have been unbelievably supportive and loyal and determined. I know that Jane is a completely committed Christian and we’ve often discussed whether the African Christian Democratic Party or the Democratic Alliance is a better party for Christians I always believed in the separation of church and state and I believe the role of the state is to provide an umbrella under which everybody is free to choose their religion and pursue it. Jane had different views. We’ve had very good discussions around that particular issue and that also came from our schooldays, so Jane and I have a very deep bond from our school days. We often, well not often enough, but we always make a night we get together and chat about the old St Mary School.

(Jane responds form the audience) “You saw me at the Rondebosch polling station, you took a photograph, on voter’s day

Well, you were the ACDP’s candidate Jane.

Yes, I was travelling about two weeks ago with Jane to a meeting held in Lentegeur in Mitchell’s Plain. Steve Swart for the ACDP was the speaker commenting on the budget and giving feedback. Jane was telling me how she had just finished reading Helen’s book and how she must write to her, so this is a little brief thank you note. It goes like this, “Dear Helen, I should have written to you ages ago, but being dyslexic, I hate writing. When we were at St Mary’s dyslexia wasn’t even heard of. We wrote matric next door to each other. I remember enviously watching you writing furiously for the history exam. We lost touch and then I remember you taking on Lapa Munnik when he said pensioners could live on R20 a month for food. I knew then that you had to go far and watched your career from afar. I even went on radio once to say, “Watch that girl, I’m so proud of her”.

That’s so great, thanks Jane for doing that, thank you very much.

I would just like you to know.