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

Veteran journalist Ed Herbst
Veteran journalist Ed Herbst

One of today’s biggest challenges is getting past the instant gratification which dominates our media consumption. We live in a world of sound bites. And like a good advertising jingle, these tightly crafted bursts get remembered for a lot longer then they deserve. It’s only through investing the time to see the full picture that complexity begins presenting itself. But embracing complexity seems a needless sacrifice when the world is content with shallow binary solutions. And it requires application and effort – qualities in short supply in our time-scarce world. Ed Herbst has done us a big service by studying Helen Zille‘s autobiography and sharing highlights here. The result is the fascinating if lengthy contribution below. His admiration for the Iron Lady of SA Opposition politics is obvious. Then again, as Herbst explains, while Zille may be hard to like, she is very easy to respect. Having had the privilege of a front row seat to watch the development of this phenomenal leader, there is no question in my mind that without her presence, South Africa would be a worse place. Despite excruciating discomfort and enormous sacrifices, she fights on because it is the right thing to do. Can there be a more noble endeavour? – Alec Hogg     

By Ed Herbst*

‘Turning the other cheek and making compromises had always backfired. I had learnt it was impossible to find viable middle ground. I had to fight fire with fire

‘As had so often happened before, people who abused their power to target me, went down first’ – Not without a fight (Penguin, 2016)

After the first democratic election in 1994, the then DP had fewer than 350 000 votes. By the time Helen Zille had completed her term as DA Leader in 2014, the party had over 4 million voters.

For women to succeed in a fiercely patriarchal political world requires courage and a combative mien and Golda Meier, Benazir Bhutto and Margaret Thatcher all took their countries into battle shortly after assuming power.

Helen Zille's book Not Without a Fight.
Helen Zille’s book Not Without a Fight.

Helen Zille relishes a fight and this is reflected in the title of her newly-released book. She fights though, from a principled corner based on the values of liberals like Helen Suzman, Peter Brown, Colin Eglin and Tony Leon.

She combines this with an unerring political instinct which, at times, pays no heed to contemporary realpolitik. Two examples will suffice:

When ANC Premier Ebrahim Rasool, whose corruption was to devastate the ANC in the Western Cape, decided that he wanted to capitalise on the damage done to the Democratic Alliance through the Desai Commission of Inquiry into German conman Juergen Harksen, by setting up a similar inquiry under Judge Nathan Erasmus, she not only mounted a legal challenge but strongly criticised Erasmus on a radio talk show.

She faced blistering criticism from columnists like Pierre de Vos and William Saunderson Meyer and she was implored by her closest advisers within the DA to desist and apologise.

She refused and was proved right by a subsequent judicial finding. De Vos, up to his eyeballs in egg and shredded by the shrapnel of his own petard, apologised but her other critics did not.

The second occasion was the debacle when the Lindiwe Mazibuko-led DA parliamentary caucus, without consulting her, voted with the ANC in favour of the ethnically-biased and divisive Employment Equity Amendment Bill. This led James Myburgh of Politicsweb to ask the valid question: Has the DA just put a bullet through its brain?

Zille was determined to make the background facts available through her newsletter, something her closest advisors implored her not to do, saying it would do irreversible damage to party cohesion. She went ahead and was proved right – again.

I joined the SABC’s Pretoria news office in 1977 when Zille was in her third year as a reporter at the Rand Daily Mail. It was in this period that she broke the story of Steve Biko’s murder. I was later deployed to the SABC’s parliamentary team at the same time that she was appointed to parliament by the RDM and I liaised with her as a reporter when she was appointed director of development and public affairs at the University of Cape Town in 1993. I liaised with her as reporter thereafter when she entered politics in 1999 and worked with her and her mayoral team as a member of the Cape Town municipality’s media department from 2007 – 2009.

Having followed her career for almost four decades I would say she is difficult to like, in part because of her gladiatorial mien and because she expects from others the high standards that she expects from herself.

She is, however, is easy to respect and, should you contest that, consider the following:

  • In April 2008 she was asked to address the United Nations on population growth and urbanisation.
  • Six months later, competing against 819 mayors throughout the world, she was elected the world’s best mayor. Tann van Hove, who founded the World Mayor project in 2004 said:

“Helen Zille is one of the most respected people in South Africa. She has integrity and is hard at work for the people of this country. More than we can say for any other politician in South Africa. It is with pride that I will teach my daughters to be like her.”

The ANC twice blocked a motion in parliament commending her for this award.

  • During the 2010 Soccer World Cup Henry Kissinger visited Cape Town and asked for an appointment with her. He wanted to ask a question:

How was the DA managing to build a party based on common values that transcended racial and ethnic boundaries in a deeply divided society? He said he had told both President Nixon and President Ford that this goal was impossible to achieve in Africa yet here was the DA doing exactly what he had predicted could not happen. He reminded me that no other party anywhere had succeeded in doing what we had set out to do, so shortly after a transition to democracy. P 327-328

  • In recognition of her credentials as a leading liberal, she was invited to Brussels to receive the 1914 Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom Prize “in recognition of her lifework in the name of freedom”. The Foundation was named after the great liberal leader of the late 19th century and supports and promotes liberal parties throughout the world.

What I experienced when I worked at the Cape Town municipality was the efficacy of one of her founding principles of ethical governance – only employing competent, committed, qualified people who are “fit for purpose”.

Her staff was a joy and a privilege to work with and, across the board, they adored her even though, as one confided with a grin, “Helen will win an argument even when she knows she’s wrong.”

That appreciation is reciprocated and, throughout her autobiography, she expresses her regard and affection for her support staff over the years and all are mentioned by name – right down to the gardeners at Leeuwenhof, the official residence of the Premier of the Western Cape.

From early in her career as a reporter she experienced the behaviour for which Donald Trump is now being excoriated – so much so that she bought a wedding ring in the hope that it would help her fend off unwelcome advances from men, many of them married. It did not.

In spite of her obvious attraction to men she lacks self-esteem and perhaps her sometimes abrasive exterior serves to hide that.

She rejoiced in the escape from parental oversight which her arrival at Wits University provided her. She took part in freshet initiation until the time came for the ‘cattle parade’ when male students choose their favourites – then she slipped out of the room.

Her high school role model, literally, was Twiggy and she saw losing weight as the gateway to peer affirmation. It nearly killed her and did kill another woman student.

Nothing I have experienced since even closely approximates the pain, both physical and psychological, I went through during those years.

It is in this chapter that she makes the only, and fleeting, reference to her faith – she is a member of the Rondebosch United Church.

My gradual recovery, with several setbacks, took almost a decade. During this time, I also found my faith. I needed something to fall back on in the biggest personal fightback of my life. I had to believe I would be okay if I found the courage to be myself; that the affirmation of other people did not matter; that I am not defined by the shape of my body.

While working at the Rand Daily Mail an American AP reporter, Matt Franjola, introduced himself. He is so handsome, so dashing that she sees him as out of her league and when he asks her out she initially declines.

I thought he was too good looking for me and handsome men made me feel insecure.

He persists and, three years later, he asked her to marry him. She accepted and then started to have reservations and ended the engagement. Shortly afterwards she met the man who was to become the rock and anchor in her life.

Photo: Twitter @all4women
Photo: Twitter @all4women

Johan Gerhardus Bester Maree is a lecturer at UCT, hated by the Afrikaner establishment for having protested in November 1969 during the Springbok tour of Britain while he was studying at Oxford University.

He is a staunch Christian and a socialist.

He gave away most of his salary, in part to the Association for Rural Advancement, to help fight forced removals, and in part to an organisation supporting the families of political prisoners.

In the early years of their marriage she is active in the Black Sash and the End Conscription Campaign and during the 1987 State of Emergency they make a cottage in their Cape Town garden available to those on the run from the Security Police. They choose not to notice who stays there at night but among the ANC luminaries who find safe, albeit temporary, haven there are Tony Yengeni, Max Ozinsky and Cameron Dugmore.

Then Barbara Hogan is sentenced to ten years in jail for assisting the ANC and her sense of trepidation grows.

If this ‘crime’ warranted a decade in jail, what fate would await the two of us if we were found guilty of hiding MK operatives in our house during a state of emergency.

What frightened me most was the prospect of our son growing up without us.

She suffers profound post-natal depression after the birth of both their children.

It was after the birth of her second child that she got a foretaste of the evil which is ever-present in post ’94 South African politics.

It related to her leading the opposition against an ANC/SADTU – supported retrenchment package which was being offered to teachers.

Essentially, it offered lucrative retrenchment packages to teachers in order to entice them to leave education permanently, and then proposed to redistribute the remaining ‘excess’ teachers into the resulting vacancies. It subordinated the educational interests of children to the job-security demands of the South African Democratic Teachers Union (SADTU) and would have been a complete disaster for the public-school system – particularly for poor schools.

She is woken in the middle of the night by a telephone call. A woman with a sultry voice informs he that not only is she the mistress of her husband, but she is also pregnant by him. She shakes her husband awake and he tells her to listen in on a second phone. This, in some measure reassures her of her husband’s fidelity but her trust is momentarily rocked – until the next morning when she hears him laughing.

Western Cape Premier Helen Zille. Photo credit: Niki McQueen.
Western Cape Premier Helen Zille. Photo credit: Niki McQueen.

He informs her of something which, in their anxiety and shock, they had both forgotten.

‘I can’t make anyone pregnant. I’ve had a vasectomy.’

This was just a foretaste of what she experiences when she tries to set up Democratic Alliance branches in the Cape Flats township of Langa.

Hamba Kwa Langa’ is the most profoundly depressing chapter in this book and it articulates and defines the depths of evil to which the African National Congress in general and the South African National Civic Organisation (SANCO) in particular descended. This replicates the thousands of deaths incurred as the ANC attempted to assert hegemonic control in KZN prior to the 1994 election and in the subsequent Shell House and Marikana massacres.

SANCO and the ANC, working closely with the SAPS in the area, harass and drive out anyone joining the DA and the police often arrest and jail DA sympathisers at weekends under false pretences.

Zille spends her time shuttling in an out of places like Langa, Gugulethu and Nyanga with the help of pro bono lawyers, often late at night, seeking to get DA supporters freed. On one occasion, she is shot while driving, the bullet hitting her but losing sufficient kinetic energy to leave only a bruise. On another occasion the lights are switched off while she is addressing a meeting and she is lucky to escape unharmed as those opposed to the spread of democracy storm towards her.

As I turned off the N2 into Langa’s Bonga Drive, I left behind the ‘world’s most progressive constitution’ and entered a realm where the local ANC councillor became the substitute for the tribal chief and whose word was law.

I was to experience over and over again how easy it is for the vocabulary of democracy to provide a thin veneer for authoritarian tribal practices – which few commentators dared to question because of the towering moral authority of the ANC. I was, once again, exposed to other dimensions of South Africa’s ‘liberation party’.

Mambhele Makelini, Zille’s star recruiter is targeted by the ANC and SANCO. They openly say they are going to drive her out of the area and they do – with the full support and protection of the police. She is repeatedly arrested on false charges, then her home is demolished.

It was truly devastating to see to see the remains of Mambhele’s meagre possessions trampled and strewn about (including a framed certificate for a course she had completed, smashed to the ground).

Then comes the inevitable deaths as the ‘liberation party’ strives to prevent political liberation coming to Langa. The first prominent ANC member to defect to the DA is an activist Nomboniso Thiywe and she pays a dreadful price.

Then, on the night of 28 August 2003, tragedy struck. Shortly after an official branch launch, in the dead of night, her shack burnt down in a ferocious fire that engulfed the structure in minutes. She managed to save her elderly mother and two of her children. The other three – Siphesihle, Zisipho and the toddler, Asemahle – were burnt to death.

The police quickly send a bulldozer to flatten the site so as to destroy the evidence of the arson and deliberately attempt to foil any subsequent investigation.

Three policemen, Senior Superintendent Beneke, Captain Williams and Inspector Burger defy this corruption and bring in a forensic expert.

He (Captain Williams) had a forensic expert, a Mr Nimbe, with him who had a sniffer dog. The dog had identified a patch of soil that smelt of paraffin, which was located near where the shack’s kitchen had been and where the blaze had started. Although at least six inches of topsoil had been removed, traces of the flammable liquid were still there.

Zille is asked to deliver the deliver the funeral oration and the community helps here with the Xhosa – although she has taught herself conversational Xhosa.

I often try to think back on the funeral scene, but my mind draws a blank. I know we pitched a marquee on the flattened plot where the tragedy had occurred and that a large choir sang soaring hymns in magnificent harmonies. I can’t even recall the children’s coffins, perhaps because the sight of a tiny coffin is such an assault on the natural order of things. The only thing I recall was Nomboniso, draped in her black blanket of grief, swaying backwards and forwards with a vacant expression in her eyes, while her mother, her burn wounds bandaged, wept beside her.

Nomboniso withdrew from political involvement. She was never the same again

Mission accomplished for the ANC, SANCO and the SAPS.

Unsurprisingly nothing comes of the police investigation and one begins to understand why the Minister of Police, Nathi Mthethwa, was so desperate to prevent the O’Regan/Pikoli Commission from happening and why the ANC was more than willing to spend your money and mine in unsuccessful interdicts to prevent it from sitting.

Helen ZIlle's public image evolution according to Zapiro. More magic available at
Helen ZIlle’s public image evolution according to Zapiro. More magic available at

Another standout chapter, ‘Of Crosstitutes and Criminals’ describes how an anti-Zille coalition seeks to subvert the will of the electorate and depose her as mayor of Cape Town after the 2006 election.

Its members include Kent Morkel, a mole within the DA, and Badih Chabaan, a known confidante of criminal elements in Cape Town who hopes to gain control of the municipality by bribing sufficient DA members to defect during a floor-crossing period.

We could clearly not rely on the police to assist us – an experience that was to be corroborated over and over again when the ANC openly broke the law in trying to bring down the DA government. We would lay a charge and it would mysteriously disappear.

It was during this time that Johan Maree answers a telephone in their home and, to his amazement, hears his wife conversing with their housekeeper. It later transpires that a device had been placed on a telephone pole outside their home to record their conversation – an extraordinary invasion of privacy.

Several of the chapters in the book relate to Zille’s ill-fated relationship with Lindiwe Mazibuko.

Mazibuko was seen as a possible successor to Zille and, against her better judgment, Zille is prevailed upon to endorse and support Mzibuko’s bid to succeed her as leader of the DA caucus in parliament when she became Western Cape Premier after the 2009 election.

This pits Mazibuko against Athol Trollip, a contest that Mazibuko, with Zille’s help, wins. She then receives a letter from Trollip’s wife, Angela, outlining the sacrifices she and her children had made in supporting his political career, a letter which speaks to her profound sense of betrayal. Zille acknowledges that he letter in reply is inadequate.

Anti-apartheid activist Mamphela Ramphele speaks at a news conference in Cape Town
Mamphela Ramphele speaks at a news conference in Cape Town, alongside Helen Zille.

What dominates the Zille narrative at this stage is her conviction that she needs to hand the baton as leader of the party to a black successor if the party is ever to be a credible political contender.

Initially Mazibuko seems the obvious choice but then another contender arrives, Mamphele Ramphele, who proves to be a profound disappointment before imploding and disappearing from the political stage.

When Mazibuko was elected parliamentary caucus leader, Zille appointed one of her staff, Geordin Hill-Lewis, to assist her. Within weeks she has got rid of him and she proceeds to build a silo which excludes Zille which results in the debacle which led James Myburgh to ask why the DA had supported legislation which was the antithesis of the liberal ideal.

I mistakenly thought she and her team would regard the parliamentary leadership as a destination, at least for a while. Instead it soon became clear that it was merely a stepping stone, on which to land one foot, fleetingly, before taking the next leap, to the DA’s national leadership, and then to the Union Buildings in the 2019 elections.

Mazibuko, after alienating many in the DA parliamentary caucus, then decided to decamp to Harvard University but not, Zille avers, before working together with two Sunday Times journalists, Gareth van Onselen and Jan-Jan Joubert on a series of articles which portrayed Zille as the villain of the piece.

It was third time lucky for the Democratic Alliance when Mmusi Maimane appeared on the scene and the 2016 municipal election saw Athol Trollip elected as mayor of Port Elizabeth.

Given the enormous sacrifices that Zille and her husband have made and the risks they have taken to bring about a more just dispensation for those oppressed during the apartheid era and subsequently, it is manifestly absurd for Race Merchants like Eusebius Mckaiser and Karima Brown to denigrate her as a “racist white madam” and she devotes the penultimate chapter in her book, ‘The problem with race politics’ to addressing such concerns.

Fixating on this issue detracts attention from where we should be focusing – on decent basic services for people, including education and health care; and creating conditions for economic growth so that people, especially poor people, can use their opportunities to get jobs and improve their lives. The fact that Cape Town does this more effectively than any other city merely intensifies the allegations of racism from the restaurant-and-club frequenting elite.

It is tempting to roll one’s eyes and regard this debate as a marginal zone occupied by narcissists determined to turn every window on the world into a self-reflecting mirror. Critical race theory, in its South African variegation, has become a fig leaf for scapegoating. There are many examples worldwide of failing governments and political parties adopting similar theories to turn minorities into scapegoats in order to mobilise and unite a divided support base, or cover up for their own policy failures.

Not without a Fight is a fascinating and, at times riveting book, full of telling and sometimes charming vignettes.

Zille is surprisingly sanguine in her assessment of the personal qualities of Presidents Thabo Mbeki and Jacob Zuma.

She is astonished when, out of the blue, she gets a warm phone call from Zuma after she becomes Premier of the Western Cape in 2009. He reminds her that she has been invited to a lekgotla of Premiers and says he looks forward to seeing her there.

She feels almost guilty about some of her criticisms of him and, at a subsequent lekotla, he asks her to dance.

Stammering her refusal she says she has never even tried, let alone mastered ballroom dancing. He will hear nothing of it and whisks her onto the dance floor where he leads her expertly to the flashing of cellphone cameras.

I was all left feet, sweaty palms and palpitations. My right hand must have been crushing is left hand, I was holding on so tightly.

‘Relax’, he laughed, ‘I will steer you.’

He tells her that after he had, as a young man, lost the heart of a young woman because he could not dance, he had had enrolled for lessons at Arthur Murray and she returns to Cape Town determined to follow his example in this regard.

She is hopeful about our future.

As I sat watching the results of the local government election streaming in on the night of 3 August 2016, I felt not only vindicated, but elated. Firstly the outcome was a magnificent affirmation of our strategy to build the DA’s brand of good governance on the foundation of our cities. But most of all, this election showed me what a huge support base there is in South Africa for the DA’s message of an inclusive, non-racial society, redressing the iniquities of apartheid by providing real opportunities for all. Nelson Mandela’s vision still resonated and the Democratic Alliance had become its heir.

Zille’s predecessor, Tony Leon, in his 2008 autobiography, On the Contrary – Leading the Opposition in a Democratic South Africa quotes Nelson Mandela as saying: ‘Your contribution to democracy is enormous. You have far more support for all you have done than you might ever read about…’

I have no doubt that if Mandela was still alive, he would afford Helen Zille a similar accolade.

  • Ed Herbst is a retired veteran journalist who writes in his own capacity.


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