With less than 11 weeks to go in the job, Western Cape Premier Helen Zille is a difficult person to get hold of. She’s rushing to and from meetings.
It’s for this reason, she says, that she’ll miss the premiership perks of being driven around.
“The best thing is I can work while I’m being driven. Never have to worry about parking. Never have to worry about how I’m going to get to a place. The driver says we’re leaving at this time and we’ll get there at that time.”
This may be the German efficiency of Zille’s immigrant-parent lineage coming through.
She sits down to talk with a can of sugar-free fizzy drink. In front of her on the ottoman in her office lounge, staff have placed a bottle of water and pocket tissues. She’s known to be very particular. She insists photographers snap pictures from her left side only. And with only 30 minutes before her next appointment, Zille, though polite, wants to get back to running her government.
The province’s longest-serving premier, who finishes her two terms when voters go to the polls on May 8, says she still has lots she wants to get done.
“It’s almost as if someone says you only have 11 weeks of your life — what are you going to pack into it? But there’s so much to do in such a short time.”
Zille has always been a force in Cape politics. Whether it was during her tenure as education MEC or Cape Town mayor, or as premier of the province, the former opposition leader in Parliament says she’s relished every role and every fight.
In her position as premier, Zille has brought some stability to the Western Cape. Before her, not a single person completed a full term. The province has always been a contentious one, with razor-thin coalitions regularly collapsing, which resulted in key projects never fully getting off the ground.
Although a fierce combatant with her political foes, Zille says she believes in playing hard but fair. On the night the Democratic Alliance swept to victory in Cape Town in the 2006 local government elections, which made Zille mayor of her adopted hometown, she and her party celebrated victory at the Independent Electoral Commission’s offices in Bellville. But she will also be remembered for hugging and consoling the losing ANC mayoral incumbent, Nomaindia Mfeketo.
“I don’t think bittersweet would describe it,” says Zille of her imminent departure from office. “I think closure would describe it. My life moves on. And I do what I do to the best of my ability, with the inevitable successes and failures.
“And then I move to the next door.”
But where does that door lead to? Zille says she has not yet made up her mind.
“I’m planning to take some time off to relax. That’s if I can. I don’t know if I know how to relax any more … My whole life has been built on seeing what door opens next.”
Asked whether she has had handover meetings with her possible replacement, DA Western Cape premier candidate Alan Winde, Zille doesn’t want to predict election outcomes. “We mustn’t get ahead of ourselves. I don’t like to jinx elections.”
This is quintessential Zille. Cautious, confident and calculating.
But there’s also the Zille who throws caution to the wind. So whether she’s dancing to Koekie Loekie, or twarring with the twitterati, she goes all in.
“I’m tough. And we didn’t understand that the internet and social media would bring out the worst in social media,” she says.
“I don’t run away from conflict and I don’t run away from confrontation. If you want to be in this job of politics, you have to be able to confront issues, ideas and sometimes people that you disagree with.”
As a parting shot to the ANC in opposition in the Western Cape, Zille says she bemoans the level of discourse in the provincial legislature, which is meant to represent the voice of people of the province.
“I would say, choose your candidates on the basis of merit, not cadre deployment. The level of debate is pitiful. It’s not a debate … If you’re talking about an exchange of ideas, it isn’t.”