Why Helen Zille’s Not Without A Fight memoir is a rarity in its sincerity

Not having previously engaged in detail with either Helen Zille’s personality or the inner conflicts of her party, the Democratic Alliance (DA), it was a surprise to me to find Zille’s autobiography so engaging. 

I confess that what little I saw of her on television or social media did not encourage me to delve much further; I was seeing the strident politician with bad dress sense, not much more. But Not without a Fight (Penguin) must be one of the most readable of the many autobiographies by political figures to have emerged in South Africa, and its protagonist emerges well.

Admittedly, it’s her story, so it was unlikely she would trash herself. But her accounts of her own development, her work in politics and even the leadership battles within the DA come across as even-handed and scrupulously fair. 

Zille frankly admits the mistakes she made in the course of her tenure as a DA leader, and her explanations (not excuses) are cogent. Even when she’s obviously settling scores, she gives what feels like ample space to the views of those who disagreed with her.

In the book’s later chapters, Zille gives full coverage of the Lindiwe Mazibuko fracas, which ended with Mazibuko leaving active politics (temporarily?) for Harvard. Zille explains well how an untenable situation developed after Mazibuko had become the DA’s parliamentary caucus leader and built a “Berlin wall” between her office and Zille’s. 

A succession battle began, despite Zille’s attempts to stall it, and Mazibuko arguably peaked too early and hence lost out. Zille’s account is straightforward, and feels trustworthy. It would be fascinating to read Mazibuko’s side of the story, if there is another side.

Similarly, Zille delves into the DA’s dance with Mamphela Ramphele ahead of the 2014 elections, a dance that ended almost immediately after Zille and Ramphele had performed “The Kiss” of alliance on national television. 

It’s obviously a painful story to tell, because Zille and Ramphele were staunch allies (particularly when both worked at the University of Cape Town), as well as good friends, before the attempts to get her into the DA began. 

But Zille doesn’t baulk at exposing the problems that emerged from Ramphele’s vacillation and over-inflated sense of her own importance to South African politics (The Moeletsi Mbeki intervention, which involved his accusing another of Ramphele’s advisers of being a plant from the National Intelligence Agency, is just bizarre, but goes some way to show the complex interests and goals that got tangled up in this issue).

What’s most enlightening, though, of the political battles fought by Zille and retold here, is that of the DA trying to make some headway in traditionally black areas such as the townships of Cape Town. 

She tells of the violent resistance offered by the South African National Civic Organisation (Sanco) to the very idea of any township dweller so much as joining the DA, let alone campaigning for it: Sanco even set up a kangaroo court to “try” people who had declared an allegiance to the DA.

Later, when a DA coalition was running Cape Town, the ANC and its stooges’ attempts to undermine the coalition and indeed recapture the city make for extremely uncomfortable reading. 

The attack on the DA by means of slander, as driven by the ANC’s then Western Cape Premier, Ebrahim Rasool, were nearly as appalling as Badih Chabaan’s programme of bribery and skullduggery to entice DA and Independent Democrats members to cross the floor and thus collapse the coalition government. 

It’s startling to read of the treachery and dishonesty of some DA leaders, but the ANC’s utterly undemocratic behaviour is the most unsettling part of this account.

The fact that the DA, against all odds, has clung to its position as official opposition, and has indeed expanded its support base considerably, is a powerful testament to the rightness of Zille’s instincts. 

It’s an important view into the struggles waged to help South Africa develop the fullest possible forms of participatory democracy.

All this politics is, in Zille’s account, more interesting than I had imagined it might be. But the most engaging part of Zille’s story is really her personal narrative. 

Going back into her family history, especially the Jewish side, Zille pays tribute to her mother, who barely escaped the Nazis (many other family members did not) and, even as a young immigrant to South Africa, was always strongly opposed to prejudice and willing to speak out. 

Zille writes amusingly about her parents’ move to a plot in “a tiny village called Rivonia” outside Johannesburg, in the 1950s, and how they gradually built their house there — starting from a rudimentary structure that was more tin than brick.

Zille’s accounts of her romance with a handsome, footloose American photographer, which segued into her romance with her future husband, Johann Maree (“I instantly warmed to someone who was so clueless about fashion”) are rather endearing. 

Passages such as these show a warm humanity at the Zille heart, and present a counter-image to the rampaging Godzille of the cartoonists and the Twitter wars.

Beyond the personal, the cumulative effect of Not without a Fight is to present Zille as an honest politician — a rarity — and it’s all the more valuable for that. 

Author Shaun de Waal
Shaun De Waal

Shaun de Waal has worked at the Mail & Guardian since 1989. He was literary editor from 1991 to 2006 and chief film critic for 15 years. He is now editor-at-large. Recent publications include Exposure: Queer Fiction, 25 Years of the Mail & Guardian and Not the Movie of the Week.

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