So, Helen Zille has beaten the contenders and ascended to the DA throne. One or two of my women friends - when I asked them whether Zille’s win was a coup for women - say she is like Tony Leon in many ways. One of them referred to her as “a clone” of Leon, which I think is a bit harsh. But I can see where they are coming from. Zille styles herself as being as hard as nails, and takes a tough aggressive line on many matters. Which is why the cartoonist Jonathan Shapiro (aka Zapiro) has nicknamed her Godzille.
At the same time, I believe Zille is different from Tony in some (important) ways. Leon could never understand that the official opposition role is not about hating the ruling party. Of course you must be passionate, but constantly foaming at the mouth is not an indispensable requirement of the opposition role. Being an effective opposition party may be much more about compelling alternatives (facts), substantiation (data) and cogent criticism of flawed government programmes that have negative impacts on the largest segments of the public (incisive). In SA, where millions of people have an emotional attachment to the ruling party, and where racial patterns define support for political parties, it makes even more sense to get off the emotive wagon. In this sense, Helen Zille appears to be different.
Zille is different also in that she not only demonstrates “reaching out” to other communities (by her use of different languages); she also appears to be less likely to make crass rejections of policies such as Employment Equity. She has the good sense to know that such policies are the flicker of hope to many black people, although of course for millions (the unemployed, for example) such policies are a mirage.
What does Zille stand for with regard to women’s rights and gender? Zille generally does not want to be drawn on this issue. In one of her interviews on the day of her election to the top position, all she would say was that women can be whatever they want to be (what does this mean?) and that women “are taking their rightful place” in all spheres of society.
While we are used to the spectacle of men competing to see who can pee farthest, one would have thought Zille and Patricia de Lille would show greater willingness and ability to work co-operatively. But no, Zille seems to be very competitive in relation to de Lille. The game seems to be: Who will be queen of the (opposition) castle? But many of us don’t care who is more loved by the media. The point really is to be effective and to take actions that lead to the country’s improvement and advancement.
In relation to her role in the Cape Town government, Zille has outfoxed the ANC in building a coalition. As mayor, she brought stability to the Metro government. But for the rest, she has not moved far out of the starting blocks. She has not (yet) rolled back the huge and specific problems of Cape Town: high inequality, rampant gangs in poor communities, constantly burgeoning informal settlements, the racial control structure of tourism and the arts and poor race relations between the people of Cape Town. For her, the jury is still out with regard to her performance on the burning urban issues in the piece of land she governs.
Even though I don’t think she is an inspirational leader (in the light of the fact that SA needs breakthrough ideas), Zille should be congratulated on snatching the DA leadership. Politics is a tough and rough game and she had the gumption to win. I remain very open to seeing what she can do.