National

Zille: In for the long haul

Marianne Thamm

People often tell DA leader Helen Zille that she is in the "wrong party". "It's madness," she says. "Of course I'm not ­- there's no alternative."

People often tell DA leader Helen Zille that she is in the “wrong party”. “It’s madness,” she says. “Of course I’m not ­- there’s no alternative.” But although many people who are not traditional DA supporters respect her, Zille has yet to translate this “affinity” into votes for her party.

Professor Lawrence Schlemmer’s latest survey of voting preferences found that the DA almost doubled its support from, 9,9% to 17, 7%, between March 2007 and May this year and that Zille enjoys “a base of sympathy that is larger than any opposition leader since FW de Klerk”.

In 2004 the DA polled 1,9-million votes, or 12% of the total, taking 50 seats in the National Assembly.

Zille, warmly welcomed at Cope’s recent national convention, is upbeat about the realignment in South Africa’s politics. But she predicts that there will be no significant changes in the political landscape until 2014.

The DA’s immediate focus is to reduce the ANC’s two-thirds majority and win control of at least one province—probably in coalition with other parties.

Eighteen months after being elected DA leader Zille is keenly aware that her party needs to become “a party for all the people” or risk declining into “a shrinking, irrelevant minority”.

She believes the only way to expand DA support is to lead by example, offering an alternative example of governance.

Zille has hit heavy flak, both within and outside the DA, for her strategic decision to continue serving as Cape Town mayor and DA leader. But it might have proved far-sighted.

The DA-led, multiparty coalition in the Cape Metro has staved off at least 10 attempts by the ANC to topple it, projecting her as a tough and determined survivor of undemocratic machinations. The city received an unqualified report from the Auditor General in January this year and has the highest credit rating of any South African metro council from international ratings company Moody’s.

Zille herself received this year’s “World Mayor” prize, an annual project organised by City Mayors, an international think tank on urban affairs. Cape Town, she says, is a project of “national significance” and a “test tube” of what the party hopes to achieve countrywide.

Morale in the DA has been buoyed not only by the success of the ruling coalition in Cape Town, but also by a string of positive opinion polls.

Schlemmer’s study earlier this year showed that in 2004 9% of African voters and 15% of all voters “admired” the major opposition leader. By 2008 this had risen to 14% and 26% respectively.

Zille has attempted to shift the party to the centre, to its liberal roots, although she prefers the less loaded term “open opportunity society”.

This new liberalism she advocates needs to find “credible ways of accommodating diversity and addressing poverty”, she told the 55th Liberal International Congress in Belfast in May this year.

She warned that unless liberal philosophies become concrete and practical, “our growth will remain very low”.

While tensions between the “old Nats” and “old Progs” in the DA still exist, Zille is confident the party is behind her.

“We’ve done this whole big shift in the party. We had a meeting of the federal council and I laid it on the line. We have to do this. I’m not guaranteeing anything, but there’s no alternative.”

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