Helen Zille not quite ready for calmer waters

Western Cape Premier Helen Zille wants to share the knowledge she has gained during her years in office. (David Harrison, M&G)

Western Cape Premier Helen Zille wants to share the knowledge she has gained during her years in office. (David Harrison, M&G)

Former Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille wants to open an academy for opposition party representatives but especially for the DA’s deployees to government, to teach them a thing or two.

Barely a week after her reign ended, Zille is thinking about how she can continue her involvement in the party she led for eight years.

Mmusi Maimane was elected to succeed her at the party’s congress in Port Elizabeth last weekend.

Zille told the Mail & Guardian this week that she is in discussions with new party leaders to establish a DA Academy, where she would share her expertise with the party’s public representatives.

“I’ve got an enormous amount of practical knowledge of the powers that the Constitution gives us, and the legislation … of turning a policy into an implementable plan into a budget,” the 64-year-old says.

“I would like to take all of the stuff that I’ve learned since I became [Cape Town] mayor in 2006 and I would like the DA’s future public representatives to benefit from it. So I’d like to start the academy, not only for people who are going to be in public office but for people who are going to be in opposition [including other parties] to really understand our roles.

“I think I have the right experience. I know the Constitution, I know the key laws and I’ve often been involved in key court cases.”

Zille also plans to write her memoirs – once she’s got more time on her hands – but don’t expect controversy.
“There are no juicy bits because I’ve had a very steady and stable marriage for 33 years, which has been an anchor for what I’ve been able to do. And I’ve got two very lekker children. I’ve got a lot to write about [such as] trying to raise a family with two high-powered jobs, which is not easy. I’ve also got a lot of intriguing historical bits that I would like to write [about].”

A relaxed Zille granted her exit interview in the lounge of the premier’s office, slowly sipping on a cup of tea and expressing happiness at the prospect of being able to go home just after 5pm, after a long period of being unable to do so. Wearing barely any make-up and no glasses, which she had forgotten in the car, Zille becomes emotional when talking about the role her family has played in her life.  

For now, Zille is not yet experiencing too much change in her busy schedule because she remains the Western Cape premier. But she has no plans to spend more time at home in her tracksuit and “crocs” even after her term as premier ends in 2019.

Helen Zille’s dream is to see the DA governing the country within the next decade. (Paul Botes, M&G)

As an ordinary member of the DA, she says it is up to the new party leadership to decide what other role she can take on, in addition to her involvement in the DA academy.

“I am just an ordinary member now who happens to be a premier. I’ve got a very important job to do here in government and if we are trying to build our brand as a very competent one in government, I have a very big role to play in that brand,” said Zille.

She added: “In making sure that people realise that we are a government for all people, the best thing I can do for the DA is to try and govern this province as well as we can.”

National government
Zille said her dream is to see the DA governing nationally within the next eight years. “I’d like to see us as the nucleus of the new majority built on shared values, with a growing economy and more people included in that economy in a productive and meaningful way.”

The ruling ANC is no longer difficult to defeat, she said. “I don’t think the African National Congress can hold it together any more. They are so divided and unravelling. You get to a tipping point where a wave starts happening and you suddenly move from 20% at Fort Hare University [where the DA recently won student representative council elections] to 52.5%, because something happens and I think that is quite close,” Zille said.

Her advice for Maimane? “Be yourself. You have to get your own style. Find out what’s comfortable for you.

“Get to know whose advice you can trust. Never look for people who are going to agree with you; look for people who intelligently disagree with you if necessary. In the end, make your own decisions and have the courage of your own convictions. Always put your family first, because at the end, you still want to have a strong family.”

Although she says she is happy to let go, Zille admits she is going to miss challenging political problems.

For now, though, she is happy to watch others take the lead, including her favourite (fictional) politician, Birgitte Nyborg, who becomes the first female prime minister of Denmark in the television series Borgen. And she hopes to keep her promise of never dancing in front of the cameras again.

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