CAPE TOWN, South Africa (AP) — Helen Zille has a sharp tongue and a short fuse, and she doesn't dodge a fight. In apartheid times, she enraged South Africa’s white rulers, and lately she has ruffled South Africa’s black political establishment.
Having won plaudits as mayor of Cape Town, she is now leader of the main opposition and her province's premier – a striking example of democracy at work in a country that is ruled by blacks but leaves room for white politicians like Zille.
In the April provincial election, Zille won just over 51 percent of the vote to seize control of the wealthy Western Cape province from the African National Congress, breaking the ruling party's monopoly on power. In voting for the national parliament, her Democratic Alliance party's share rose to nearly 17 percent and helped deny the ANC its coveted two-thirds majority.
Now the 58-year-old workaholic says her goal is to run Western Cape so well that voters will be persuaded to ditch the ANC in other provinces.
“The Western Cape will set an example for democracy for South Africa,” she told cheering supporters after the results were announced.
That's a tall order, given that her Democratic Alliance is still perceived as mainly white and most black South Africans are loyal to the ANC which liberated them from oppression. Zille says that 15 years after apartheid formally ended, race no longer should dominate politics.
But the ANC has responded sourly to losing the Western Cape. No sooner had Zille announced her Cabinet than the ruling party was complaining that it was all-male, mainly white and therefore out of touch. Zille hit back by reminding South Africans that their new president, the ANC's Jacob Zuma, had a blemished record where women were concerned.
“The ANC does not take electoral defeat lying down,” Zille said. “Instead they use every trick imaginable to reverse the voters' choice. We are ready for them.”
“Almost every structure established to protect the rights of South Africans has become an extension of the ANC, protecting the powerful against ordinary people and maintaining a culture of silent denial about the root causes of many of our country's biggest problems. The role of the opposition is to break that silence. We will continue to do this, no matter how much politically correct outrage this elicits,” she pledged in her weekly newsletter.
The slanging match worsened as the ANC Youth League made statements insinuating Zille was a loose woman and even called her racist – an unusual line of attack given her celebrated record of fighting apartheid.
Born to Jewish parents who fled Nazi Germany, Zille had no allegiance to the National Party which formalized racial segregation. Working for the liberal Rand Daily Mail, she investigated the 1977 death in prison of black leader Steve Biko, which was claimed to be self-inflicted, and played a critical part in breaking the story that he was killed by police brutality.
She continued to demonstrate against apartheid, risking imprisonment, and entered politics after white rule ended and Nelson Mandela led the country into its new, multiracial era. She is one of the few ranking white politicians who speaks South Africa’s three main languages, Xhosa, English and Afrikaans.
For three years she ran Cape Town, the graceful city of 3 million on the southwestern tip of the continent, and won an international award for her vigorous, down-to-earth style of governing. She proved as comfortable with VIPs and investors as with ordinary townspeople, sharing cheap snacks with striking cab drivers or publicly badgering scrap-metal dealers to stop abetting the theft of copper wiring.
She demonstrated outside the homes of alleged dealers in an anti-drugs campaign, even getting herself briefly arrested, which only heightened her appeal among poor communities that have been devastated by methamphetamine.
“When police arrest you for knocking on a gate but don't arrest the dealers who ply drugs on children, then you have a problem,” Zille said in a heated phone-in program on national radio.
Now she says she'll bring her hands-on brand of governance to Western Cape, whose 5.3 million people are nearly 11 percent of South Africa's population and where stunning landscapes and rich wine country collide with poverty, drug addiction and joblessness.
Half the Western Cape population is mixed-race. Elsewhere they are a minority that feels marginalized by the ANC, and it was because of their votes for Zille that her province was the only one the
ANC lost in the election. Returning home after the election, Zille was met at the airport by a sea of supporters, mostly mixed-race women, waving signs that said “Helen, we luv you,” and “Helen for President.”
Things turned nasty after she unveiled her cabinet.
“This shows that she has a vote of no confidence in women as leaders and decision-makers. Her display of chauvinism in this day and age is outdated,” said the ANC government's minister for women, Noluthando Mayende-Sibiya.
Zille responded that the ANC had never been led by a woman, and insisted she chose her cabinet on merits. But then she went on to write a letter to a newspaper attacking Zuma, who had just become president, for his “deeply sexist views.”
She mentioned his 2006 rape trial in which he acknowledged he knowingly had unprotected sex with an HIV-positive woman and thought he could protect himself by showering afterward. He was acquitted but his behavior put “all his wives at risk of contracting HIV,” Zille wrote in a letter to a newspaper. Zuma has three wives.
His supporters were incensed. Military veterans marched in combat fatigues, threatening to make the Western Cape ungovernable. Trade unions threatened strikes. The ANC Youth League called her a “fake racist girl who was dropped on a head as a child.” It claimed that Zille, who has been married to a college professor for 27 years and has two sons, wanted an all-male cabinet to serve as her concubines.
Zille hit back by citing a survey showing that more than 10 percent of South African children aged 10 to 13 are sexually active and that 27 percent believed bathing after sex could stop HIV. “One wonders (silently) where they got that idea from,” Zille said. On average, more then 1,000 South Africans are infected with the AIDS virus every day.
But even some of Zille's supporters were dismayed at her for butting heads with a newly installed president.
“We have enough cheap shots from the other parties. Your latest behavior makes me wonder if you were the right choice,” wrote Jill Henning, one of Zille's 31,157 supporters on Facebook.
Zille has since opted for conciliation, saying after a meeting with Zuma that it was cordial. She also had a friendly meeting with ANC provincial premiers.
“I didn't feel like the proverbial pork sausage in a mosque,” Zille said. But she added she's well aware of the political struggles ahead.
“I know I'm going to be man alone,” she said with a smile.
Photo: Helen Zille