n the almost sixteen years that she has been in politics, especially the eight that she has been leader of the Democratic Alliance, Helen Zille has been called many names.
Bully, cockroach, and “power crazy dictator” are just some of those names. She brushes all of them off, calling them strange.
“People often take leadership better from a man than they do from a woman,” says Zille.
She says being a woman has not made her job particularly easier or harder, except for those times when hard decisions had to be made and she had to make them. Those times she says, that’s when she was called by “strange” names.
“When there are strong differences of opinions in the party and you give strong leadership in a particular direction and it’s the decision of the leader. When men do that it is considered strong leadership and when women do it they are often called dictators and other strange names,” says Zille.
Zille was speaking to the SABC in an interview about her time as leader of the DA. She announced last month that she would not be running for re-elections.
The party will this weekend elect a new leader to take over from Zille this weekend. As her last day as their leader approaches Zille says she is often filled with a mix of emotions, including sadness.
She says knowing that she would be unpopular or be called names for some of the decisions she took did not deter the decisions she made, she says she did her best and what she believed was best. “I’ve done what I believe is right in the circumstances,” she says. She says she will miss the job as it gave her, “purpose and meaning. It’s given me a lot of hard work, a lot to think about and a lot of big problems to solve and that’s when I’m happiest, when I’m solving big problems”.
Zille officially joined politics in 1999 and became leader of the opposition party in 2007. She says she has loved “every day” of her journey. However, it was not without its difficulties and disappointments.
When asked about where she feels she might have failed as the leader of the DA, Zille without any hesitation mentions the deal she struck with Agang’s Mamphela Ramphele.
Last year, just a few months before the national election, the DA announced that Ramphele, who was Agang’s top leader at the time, would be their presidential candidate. Only five days after the announcement, Ramphele reneged from the agreement.
“I did in good faith, she came to us, she said she was ready to join with us there were a lot of people encouraging us to get together. They said it made no sense to have two different parties with the same values, contesting the same elections. That made sense to me,” says Zille.
She says she was extremely disappointed and she felt Ramphele threw away a good opportunity.
At the time, Zille was accused of just wanting to use Ramphele to win over black voters. She was accused of “renting a black face”. She has been accused of doing the same thing with her support of Mmusi Maimane, accused of allowing him to occupy senior positions because of his skin tone so as to win black voters.
She rubbishes the claims and says that all she has done was to diversify the party and open up opportunities.
Zille says the people with leadership positions within the party, including the young, black leaders in top positions are there not because of “made them” but because the opportunities were there and they took advantage of them.
“I’ve never made anyone a leader. I’ve never crowed anyone as a leader. I said here is an opportunity, here is the training, when positions come out and stand for them and win them because people have respect for you now,” says Zille.
Despite feeling sadness over having to say good bye to a job she has loved, Zille is aware and appreciative of the fact that she will now be able to do other things, like spending more time with her family.
“I often had to get up very very early in the morning and work all through the weekend somewhere else in the country which was often a big challenge. My family often had to take second place, which is not always a good idea.”
Zille is married to Johann Maree and they have two sons, Paul and Thomas.
“They were very understanding and very good. I think in some way my heavy work load has made us stronger as a family,” says Zille.
She says she decided to not stand for re-election because it may not be best for the party, because in the end it is the party that matters. Because in the end, what she wants is to see the DA growing to become the government, even if she is not leading that government.
– By Mamaponya Motsai