“Until the fat lady sings” – a

“Until the fat lady sings” – an election exclusive with Helen Zille

Western Cape Premier and Democratic Alliance (DA) leader HELEN ZILLE spills the beans in conversation with Sertan Sanderson in Cape Town

“Until the fat lady sings” – a

Zille & Maimane

Helen Zille — you’re party leader, premier, former mayor, former journalist… a lady of many hats. How do you deal with all the challenges, the scrutiny, and even the adversity that you have to face in your various professional capacities?

There’s no adversity. None at all. You don’t get a day off but no one conscripted into this job, I do it willingly and I do it with a lot of enjoyment. Nothing’s predictable, every day is different and that’s the best part about it. And I’ll tell you what: it’s much easier than raising two boys.

But what criticism upsets you the most personally? And how do you deal with criticism?

Well, I am who I am. I try to improve all the time and I try to deal with my faults all the time. But being white is not one of my faults because there’s nothing I can do about it. But I’m an empathetic person and I try to be empathetic with all things I do, be that as a mother or as a party leader.

Since you took over leadership of the DA ten years ago you’ve managed to double voter numbers – if current predictions are to be believed. How did you achieve that?

I have a great team! My best skill is to choose the right people in the right positions. I’m very good at that. And if you pick the right people for the right positions the rest takes care of itself.

In your day-to-day campaigning, what ideas do you find you have to challenge the most?

So much of our politics in the past has been rooted in the politics of racial divisions. We have to overcome that and to build a new majority on the basis of value — not racial divisions. That’s our biggest challenge. I think people expect some form of payback for the past, and I understand that because the government of the day ran a very evil system, and people were very bruised by it, very hurt, and very disadvantaged. We have to do whatever we can to address the past without entrenching race as the category for doing that permanently.

What does the DA try to do to that end?

Our approach at the DA is to give talented people real opportunities to rise very quickly through the ranks by broadening opportunity, not by manipulating outcomes for the politically connected. And that’s what we would like to see elsewhere as well. The ANC doesn’t allow any of that, especially not for talented individuals because they could inherently become a threat to Jacob Zuma and his cronies. In the ANC, you get cronies catapulted right up the ladder to all kinds of positions to keep it safe for Jacob Zuma. At the DA, we’re completely against that. And with the damning Nkandla report being published by the public protector, people can see what the ANC really stands for. It’s a frightening report. And if people can’t wake up after that then I don’t know what will make them wake up.

So what are your expectations for the upcoming elections then?

My one superstition is not predicting elections until the fat lady sings. So I have to wait for that to happen. But I think we will grow. I hope we’ll grow quite nicely, and that will again confirm that the DA is the only party that has grown in every single national election.

What do you think will change for the other parties then?

The ANC is in the process of irreparable decline. The ANC is past the point of no-return to be salvaged internally. It’s only a question of time to see its disintegration become final. That can drag on though because weak parties can remain in politics on the old brand for a very long time. The big challenge is for us to consolidate the moderate, non-racial centre to back the constitution, as the militant left is also on the rise. If we can keep our own growth-momentum, if we can stabilise and if we can develop from here then we will hold the balance of power in the next election. When we achieve that outcome I’ll be happy that we’ve done our job.

Were you trying to consolidate the moderate centre when you tried to attract Mamphela Ramphele to come on board?

Yes, because it makes not sense to have Agang, which has almost identical policies to what we have in the same field. We’ll just divide the opposite voters into smaller and smaller units, and that just makes the ANC stronger. So it doesn’t help at all to have another party in the field proposing exactly the same solutions for South Africa. We need to be together and grow the moderate, non-racial centre.

What exactly happened there when you failed to unite with Agang?

Well, what happened has been going on for at least five years. Mamphela had come right to the brink of joining us on two or three occasions, and had always pulled back for one reason or another. This time because she had run out of money completely for her campaign she asked me to bail her out, and I said I would certainly try. I then made her an offer that she accepted. So I thought, ‘well, this time it’s for real’ and so I waited for it to turn out to be for real. But I think she backed off when a couple of people around her got cold feet. Anyway, I’m over with that. After all that, I’m over it, and it won’t happen again. In any event, Mamphela has spent her political capital because she’s not going to do very well in these elections and there’s not much she can bring to any other party now.

So if you had to be part of a coalition government in the future, could you envision a coalition with the ANC?

It depends on who will have left the ANC by then. I could easily envision a coalition with people who back the National Development Plan of the ANC. It makes all kinds of sense with people who back the constitution as well, who back non-racialism, who back an open-market economy. There are people in the ANC, who back all those things, and the DA backs them as well. There is a lot of common ground between the ANC and the DA in the National Development Plan. We had our plan for 8 per cent growth and 6 million new jobs long before the ANC had their National Development Plan, and the two are very similar so it gives us a strong overlap. But the ANC can’t implement their National Development Plan because they are too divided internally.

As an opposition party, where would you say the current ANC government’s main shortcomings lie?

The big challenge of a democracy is to get away from the big individuals and to move to the big institutions that can hold power to account. Among the big institutions that will outlive any big individual leader, you need an independent judiciary, a strong and independent police and defence force. You need an independent prosecuting authority, as you need an independent electoral commission. You need a whole range of institutions. And we have good institutions: we have the public protector, the Independent Communications Authority of South Africa and so on. All of those institutions are very important to build up as big, strong and independent institutions to hold power to account and to prevent power-abuse and to stop corruption. But the ANC have continued building the politics of the big individual, and Jacob Zuma is that individual. He deploys his allies into key positions of state that should be independent, and the deal is that he looks after them and they look after him. In that way they undermine the institutions of our democracy instead of building their independence. Looking back one day, we will all say that this was the ANC’s most egregious mistake, undermining the institutions of our democracy. But before it comes to undermining democracy, the ANC will undermine itself with its internal division.

Are those institutions of the democracy safe? Is the constitution safe?

No, they aren’t. And it’s not that I believe that the ANC is going to change the constitution, but what they’ve shown us is that you can undermine the intention of the constitution without changing a single word. If you make sure you manipulate the Judicial Service Commission to get ANC judges, if you deploy an ANC cadre into being the National Director of Public Prosecutions, if you staff all independent institutions with your friends then you break down the very core of constitutional democracy, which is the principle of equality before the law. So now we’re seeing that the president is sitting with 763 unanswered counts of corruption, money-laundering, fraud and various other things against him, and he has managed to avoid coming to court for five years because his man is in charge of the prosecuting authority. So we have a situation where equality before the law is obviously questionable at the highest level, and so we can’t say that our constitution is safe. Indeed I would say that we are in a race against time to protect our constitution.

But let’s face it, Zuma has another five years as president.

Jacob Zuma has five more years as president, but because he is surrounded by people who are dependent on his largesse, you can be jolly sure that it will be one of that corrupt network that will try to take over from him.  And we know that the ANC isn’t serious about stopping corruption because they want to continue using the state to make all their cadres rich. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve got a very cordial personal relationship with him, but that doesn’t mean that I think his policies are good. I think his policies are disastrous.

What about the impeachment campaign against President Zuma? How is that coming along?

We do what we can to chip away at the battlements, block by block. I certainly think that we’re making the price of Jacob Zuma for the ANC very, very expensive in terms of his brand and in terms of his public profile, and also believe that many people will be determined to get rid of Jacob Zuma within the ANC, and change the ANC from within. What they’re going to learn, much to their disillusionment in the next couple of years, is that the ANC is beyond the point no-return and can’t be changed from within. Then they’ll have to make the decision that many South Africans have already made and come on-board with the DA.

So you expect a lot of defections?

I expect a lot of voters to leave before the people who are dependent on the system leave. I don’t like people to cross the floor if they’re public representative. I want voters to change their minds and hold public representatives to account. And that’s already happening, proving that our democracy is going strong.

As we’re celebrating 20 years of democracy, what do you think the next 20 years hold for South Africa?

We live in a democracy now but things are going to be a bit rough for the next five years as I see it, because we’re going to have a lot of movement on the political left among the populists and the Marxists. But even if they win in a few places, in 2016 the local government election will be what’s needed to demonstrate just how much they’re going to mess up the places that they govern. We only need that contrast to show how much better the DA governs when we govern. So we are ‘all systems go’ for the Union Buildings, and this election is an important step in that direction.

What about that extreme left-wing element? For instance, how do you feel about the prospect of Julius Malema in parliament?

We’re going through an interesting period in politics now. Yes, Malema will get his seat, no question, but if he’s declared insolvent then he’ll have to give up that seat. That’s a real likelihood at the moment because he owes the taxman R16 million rand, although he hasn’t had a proper job in his life so I don’t know where he got that R16 million from. But if he’s declared insolvent, he’ll have to give up that seat and leave parliament whether he’s even voted in or not.

Speaking of voting, what’s the state of expat voting now after all the campaigning that the DA has done to simplify it with the Electoral Amendment Act?

One of the best things expats can do is voting. And every vote counts. As it is 35,000 expats have registered to vote around the world, and about 10,000 of them in the UK. Hopefully all of them will vote, and hopefully the majority of them vote DA, which means that on that remainder we can get another seat in parliament on the expat vote. Our past experience shows that the vast majority of expat voters are DA. They tend to have a value set that agrees with the DA. They believe in the open-opportunity society for all, which we advocate, and are interested in helping us create that in South Africa.

Many South Africans are returning home now. What does that mean in the political context in the region?

I think it gives us good news. It gives us the news that people think we are going to succeed with this democratic transition. So I’m very excited that lots of people, who previously doubted that we ever could or would succeed and who had left South Africa are now returning because they feel reassured that we’re doing well. And if we get democracy right in South Africa, I hope that it will spread across the continent. So ultimately we all have a crucial role to play to make sure that this succeeds.

So, Premier, when you’re not busy building towards that success, when you’re not campaigning, governing and massive  holding rallies across the country, what do you do to relax?

Well, I try to follow the rugby. But if that fails, I spend my time talking to people like you.

By Sertan Sanderson, 2014