Could a white woman ever be elected South Africa's president?

 
Helen Zille, leader of South Africa's opposition Democratic Alliance party, speaks to the media after police officials blocked her attempts to walk near President Jacob Zuma's home in Nkandla on 4 November 2012

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Helen Zille treads a narrow path. She's a white woman, leading the main opposition party, against a former African liberation movement, in what you might call a "developing democracy".

In many countries, the leader of the opposition can afford to rail and spin and generally throw mud at the ruling party without too much caution, while those in charge of running the government are held more firmly to account.

Here in South Africa the opposite often seems to hold true.

Ms Zille's race is, she concedes, "a powerful factor" that is routinely used against her by elements in the governing African National Congress (ANC), and which many observers have identified as a stumbling block in the opposition Democratic Alliance's (DA) relentless ambition to take power.

So, it's no surprise to find that in person, Helen Zille, 61, speaks with the precise, careful delivery of a lawyer summing up a tricky commercial law case.

Who is Helen Zille?

  • Aged 62, fluent Xhosa speaker
  • Former journalist and anti-apartheid activist
  • 1977: Revealed that Steve Biko had died from torture
  • 2004: Becomes an MP
  • 2006: Elected mayor of Cape Town
  • 2007: Becomes leader of Democratic Alliance
  • 2009: Becomes premier of Western Cape province

Not that she pulls her punches. During the course of our interview, Ms Zille brands the ANC "a mortal threat to our constitution… a racial nationalist party" and "a group of warring fiefdoms" that is "busy imploding".

We meet at her stunning, white-walled official residence in Cape Town. Manicured gardens frame an immaculate view of the city and bay. Ms Zille is premier of Western Cape - the only one of South Africa's nine provinces to slip from the ANC's grip at the 2009 election.

She enters the wood-panelled drawing room fresh from a football cup parade and dressed up, she explains, for an evening date with her husband.

It's been "downhill" for the ANC since 2004, Ms Zille declares, branding the ruling party "a group of… factions all fighting for power for money's sake, to control the patronage networks, control the tenders and contracts and employment committees.

"And once a party feels so immune to public criticism and so certain it's going to be re-elected at every election, that is the moment of critical danger and I think the ANC's unravelling will continue very quickly over the next seven years."

The Democratic Alliance, by contrast, is "on a roll… growing with every national election", with control of 27 municipalities, one province, and "one in four votes" in the last national election.

"We can go on to be the party of national government by 2019," she says with conviction.

Of the political damage caused to the ruling alliance by the killing in August by police of workers at the Marikana platinum mine, Ms Zille says it "will dislodge a boulder from the top of the mountain, and it will roll down and gather momentum and I really do believe it will cause such a tremor that South African politics will look very, very different by the time the 2014 election comes around… The ANC are in for a big shock."

President Jacob addresses workers in Johannesburg on 12 September 2012 President Zuma is under pressure from many in his own party

In recent years I've certainly noticed the DA's growing presence at a grassroots level in black communities, where local DA councillors are increasingly seen as a credible alternative to the ANC.

But behind the scenes it is no secret that the party is hunting aggressively for a high profile black recruit from the liberation struggle era, who can help demolish the resilient suspicion that the DA remains, fundamentally, a minority party, designed to preserve and protect white economic interests against the pressures of transformation.

Ms Zille can lay claim to her own struggle credentials, and the DA's appeal has already been broadened by the arrival of figures like parliamentary leader Lindiwe Masibuko in their line-up.

But while careful in interviews, Ms Zille can still sometimes shoot herself in the foot with provocative "stunts," like her recent visit to President Jacob Zuma's Nkandla residence, which appear to play into the ANC's hands.

Would the ANC accept defeat at a national level? Analysts like Moeletsi Mbeki have told me the party will eventually slink away "with its tail between its legs." Ms Zille sounds confident too, but strikes a note of caution.

"We are in a race against time," she says. "The ANC doesn't believe in separating party and state. President Zuma believes liberation means unfettered power for the ANC."

"The ANC is a mortal threat to our constitution," she continues, focusing on a long-running dispute over the dismissal of corruption charges against Jacob Zuma, and the refusal of the National Prosecuting Authority to comply with a Supreme Court of Appeal ruling to release details of the secret tapes upon which the 2009 dismissal was based.

"It takes time for everyone to understand that if you put the president above the law, then no-one is safe before the law," she says.

Warming to her theme, Ms Zille raises the spectre of a "Zimbabwe-style" outcome, where "institutions of state, the police, army, and electoral commission" become extensions of the ruling party.

"We have to have a transition before that happens, and I think we're well on the way."

 
Andrew Harding, Africa correspondent Article written by Andrew Harding Andrew Harding Africa correspondent

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  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 29.

    22. Balloon Rake
    14 HOURS AGO
    The next president of South Africa should be Julius Malema, this man speaks common sense and should be a more prominent figure in politics, he is the future of politics, I wouldn't be surprised if he gets the Nobel peace prize in the next 5 to 10 years.
    And can I just add that I am white.
    **
    and a complete idiot!!

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 28.

    To 10. Since when did africa have exclusivity over genocide?

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 27.

    The new apartheid instigated by the ruling party makes is very difficult for any white person whatsoever to show that they actually mean well. Simple example. I can speak to any black person from Africa, and we will have a meaningful discussion, and yet if I'm trying to talk to a black South African, you can feel the hatred towards you. I hope Zille can brake the ice for better relations.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 26.

    No sadly, because the ANC will never let the power go. Just like Zim.. South Africa is finished. SADLY. Second thing people need to get over colour. It’s about the person doing the right Job for the country and not fill their pockets. Like the ANC.......... DO
    Balloon Rake , if you think Julius should be presidend, then I can say god help SA.U need to wake up and smell the coffee.....

  • Comment number 25.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • Comment number 24.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this
    +2

    Comment number 23.

    22.Balloon Rake
    8 Minutes ago
    The next president of South Africa should be Julius Malema, this man speaks common sense and should be a more prominent figure in politics, he is the future of politics, I wouldn't be surprised if he gets the Nobel peace prize in the next 5 to 10 years.
    And can I just add that I am white.

    You need to add more water to your whisky, old boy.

  • rate this
    -5

    Comment number 22.

    The next president of South Africa should be Julius Malema, this man speaks common sense and should be a more prominent figure in politics, he is the future of politics, I wouldn't be surprised if he gets the Nobel peace prize in the next 5 to 10 years.
    And can I just add that I am white.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 21.

    17. Blanshard Meheux
    13TH NOVEMBER 2012 - 22:00
    ... The indigenes have sacrifised enough blood, sweat and tears over centuries, through oppression by a viscious, primitive and heartless bunch of maritime marauders who still control the wealth of the nation...

    What? And you consider yourself saints compared to what you did to the Bushmen, Khoi-San, etc when you marauded south from Central Africa?

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 20.

    What SA clearly needs is a leader with integrity like the former HF Verwoerd, not someone like the liberal Helen Zille. Unfortunatley the electorate has not enough common sense...

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 19.

    It's possible for South Africa to have a white president if it's given time enough for political and economic trust to develop between the races. Before this level of trust develops all races have to be seen to making significant steps.There are so many things predicated on trust, but once it's established people will vote for leaders irrespective of color. How long it'll take is any body's guess.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 18.

    It took America 300 years to elect a black president, yet you are already expecting South Africa to do the same in less than two decades. I think it you are not being fair to blacks of South Africa here. You are simply asking for too much.

  • rate this
    -2

    Comment number 17.

    Not in a million years, never again will another white man rule black peolple in south Africa. The indigenes have sacrifised enough blood, sweat and tears over centuries, through oppression by a viscious, primitive and heartless bunch of maritime marauders who still control the wealth of the nation. Its time for nationaliztion of all mines and rich farmlands. D people deserve economic freedom

  • rate this
    -3

    Comment number 16.

    This is no matter for debate. The same generation of oppressors cannot be allowed to rule. Two generations after this De Clark generation can. They have not shown any desire to share the glory of the land which welcomed them with those they came to meet. So BBC let talk about this again in 2212 (200 years from now).

  • rate this
    -4

    Comment number 15.

    At tee moment, this issue is taboo and offensive to the African race. Let us talk about this after 200 years fro today.

  • rate this
    0

    Comment number 14.

    #13 Youngerx: You missed my point. Given, the history of slavery, colonization and apathied, Black people are more forgiving of their enemies. Do your homework. War is not unique to Africa. Europe, Asia, Middle-East Americas have all had and some still have their share of civil/external wars. Sadly, war is the bane of humanity.

  • rate this
    +3

    Comment number 13.

    No sadly, because the ANC will never let the power go. Just like Zim.. South Africa is finished. SADLY. Second thing people need to get over colour. It’s about the person doing the right Job for the country and not fill their pockets. Like the ANC.......... DO

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 12.

    Politics is more than black and white. Mr Zuma has used power of patronage very well to place ANC cadres loyal to him in positions of wealth and authority. Other groups are marginalized, particularly in the police and justice area. Ms Zille is trying to hoover up support from as many such groups as she can. Good luck to her: the Zuma model of alligning state with party is a path to dictatorship.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 11.

    It does not matter the level of embezzlement, fraud or nepotism by the ANC, I do not see a white president being elected in my lifetime, not after the hell the blacks (mainly) went through with Apartheid who are content with a black man as president whatever the flaws.

    Democracy requires time to mature in SA and the populace will then understand that leadership should not be about skin colour.

  • rate this
    +1

    Comment number 10.

    @Kingsley O
    "Black people are the most forgiving race on earth"
    What about all the civil wars in Africa? What about Rwanda?

 

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