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DA's Helen Zille’s 10 years as WC premier – a leader and rabble-rouser

The Western Cape Premier this year exits the office she has held for two successive terms. Her time in power has been as formidable as she has been controversial.

A LEADER & A RABBLE ROUSER: Helen Zille. Picture: Cindy Archillies/EWN.

CAPE TOWN - Helen Zille delivered her swansong State of the Province Address in February, drawing a line under 10 years as the Western Cape Premier.

Having served as Cape Town mayor for three years, and as the leader of the Democratic Alliance for eight, she assumed the role as an experienced political operative, and leader.

A former journalist and anti-apartheid activist, she is the first female premier to serve two terms in a Democratic South Africa.

In her final State of the Province address last month, Zille ran through a laundry list of wins. Among them, a provincial unemployment rate that’s 14 percentage points below the national average, and the nation’s lowest rural unemployment rate.

Zille also used her speech to highlight the spending choices her government has made, saying 82% of the province’s budget goes to the poor, and referencing a drive that’s seen 80% of the province’s schools connected to free internet.

On the governance front, the Western Cape managed an 83% clean audit across departments, putting it at the top of the heap nationally.

Metrics such as these are often referenced by the Democratic Alliance, with the Western Cape held up as an example of DA governance.

But her decade of governance has not always been smooth.

She recently faced a very serious crisis in the form of a prolonged drought, and the spectre of Day Zero. The City of Cape Town came through the crisis rattled, but largely unscathed - except for a negative impact on tourist numbers in the year that the crisis hit its peak. Rampant gang violence in many areas across the Cape Metro also posed a key obstacle. Then there was the persistent narrative that Cape Town and the Western Cape remain separated along racial lines. That narrative was one of the political hot potatoes Zille had to juggle.

Zille became a lightning rod for criticism on several occasions, often because of her prolific and unguarded use of Twitter.

In 2012, Zille’s tweet on “education refugees” from neighbouring Eastern Cape sparked widespread condemnation.

She tweeted: “While E Cape education collapsed, WC built 30 schools – 22 new, 8 replacement mainly 4 E Cape edu refugees. 26 MORE new schools coming.”

Zille apologised for that tweet.

Five years later, in 2017, another storm on Twitter, after Zille weighed in on colonialism. She tweeted “for those claiming that the legacy of colonialism was only negative” they should look at various aspects of South Africa’s development, such as the judiciary and other infrastructure.

The tweet caused widespread outrage, and got her into hot water with DA party structures, with the DA Federal Council suspending her from party activities (but not as premier) pending a disciplinary process.

Zille eventually issued a formal apology for the tweet, but a year later once again issued a series of tweets about colonialism, that led to another caution by party structures.

Public Protector Busisiwe Mkhwebane found that Zille’s tweets violated the executive ethics code, but Zille has taken the decision on review – a matter still before the courts.

Another Public Protector decision that did not favour Zille revolved around her son. His volunteer project to help boost maths and science education made use of Western Cape Education Department tablets – something Mkhwebane found violated the executive code of ethics.

Zille has rejected this claim from the start, saying her son received no preferential treatment, and asserting that any volunteer would be helped in a similar fashion. She is also taking this Public Protector finding on review.

Zille was also sometimes surprising: she once publicly backed Minister of Basic Education Angie Motsheka - an ANC minister - when she was in the cross hairs, saying she had fulfilled her constitutional responsibilities better than her predecessors.

In spite of the controversies she has faced, and sometimes caused, political analysts say Zille’s tenure and her legacy will be defined by her ability to juggle governance with politics.

They agree her robust style helped consolidate her power in government, and ensured her cabinet always supported her publicly.

Ralph Mathekga, political analyst at the University of the Western Cape, believes Zille has balanced the roles of politician and governor well.

He said some politicians were very good at politicking and towing party lines, but failed to ensure that the most basic services were delivered.

“She has been a character, not only in the Western Cape, but at a national stage too. She grew the DA to become a bigger opposition and has solidified her position in government in the Western Cape. When one looks at how she took the ANC on, it is quite commendable. As a female politician, in a male-dominated environment, she kicked the ANC out of government in the Western Cape. She took the battle to them even when she was in government,” he said.

Mathekga added that her biggest success was keeping internal factions within the DA at bay and not allowing an overly great focus on internal party politics.

Independent political analyst Solly Moeng told EWN that Zille’s controversial tweets at times overshadowed her work in government.

“These days getting a clean audit is considered a major achievement, but it's something that the Western Cape has managed to get every year. There are several more problems now than in 2009, and people can see that. But her tweets made bigger news and sparked bigger conversation than anything else. And some people agree with what she says...you can’t deny that. Others simply don’t like her. Whatever it might be, she played both roles okay,” he said.

Mathekga said despite her comments on social media, Zille was able to keep her government stable.

“As a leader in government, she kept her cabinet support. Those MECs are very close to her and they still support her, even though she has tweeted things which has sparked some controversy. But she is really a strong leader and a leader will always have controversies. But Zille stood her ground. She did not go where the wind blew her,” Mathekga says.

The Democratic Alliance has gained votes in the province Zille led over two successive elections. They won a majority of just under 60% in the last national polls. Should they win the province in this year’s elections, premier candidate Alan Winde will succeed Zille.

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