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How Helen Zille turned the DA upside down and inside out

Politics nowhere is for sissies. But South African politics is particularly vicious — a cesspit of blind hatred and vitriol, possibly unsurpassed among the democracies.

Today’s leaders of both the governing African National Congress and the opposition Democratic Alliance have been particularly targeted. That they stoically endure this abuse is a measure of the resilient egos that are standard equipment for all politicians, as well as the rewards of public office.

Forget his manifest ethical and leadership failures — which are of course fair game for criticism and satire — President Jacob Zuma has been mercilessly mocked for his tribal childhood, his lack of formal education, his nervous giggle, his inability to read a speech, and even his round visage. Nelson Mandela, as a United Nations certified saint, was excused such pettiness. So, too, Thabo Mbeki, perhaps because his patrician manner commanded deference, or perhaps because his retributory nature triggered a self-preserving caution.

Helen Zille, who this week announced she would not seek another term as party leader, has also endured more than her predecessors. While her haughty mien perhaps made inevitable the tag of “Madam” — with its connotations of unthinking white privilege and arrogance — many of the slurs were simply male chauvinism.

Steeliness in a male politician is admirable. When a woman is resolute, she is an “Iron Lady”, with echoes of the medieval torture chamber’s Iron Maiden. Alternatively, she can be belittled as a “little girl”, pilloried as a whore, or as a “cockroach” be threatened with genocidal extinction.

To be sure, Zille is often charmless and hard to like. She can be rude and patronising. She is often petulant and petty. Her Twitter rants are the despair of her advisers.

But Zille is also by far the best leader that DA has had, with a razor sharp mind and tongue reminiscent of one of her mentors, the late, great Helen Suzman. One difference is that Suzman’s humanity was always quick to reveal itself, unlike Zille’s, which she keeps concealed under rhino hide.

Zille’s achievements are unassailable. The DA polled just over 12% of the vote in 2004. Following her 2007 elevation to leader that rose to almost 17% in 2009, and again in 2014 to fractionally over 22%.

Seemingly through sheer force of personality, Zille secured first the Cape Town metro for the DA and then the entire Western Cape. The exemplary effect of the only major geographical entities held by the opposition being conspicuously better performers than their ANC counterparts — in terms of administrative efficiency, honest governance, and leading economic and social indicators — is one of Zille’s biggest legacies.

Perversely, it is an inheritance that has been churlishly received by many old-school DA liberals, who have been almost as unkind to Zille as have been her detractors among black nationalists outside the DA. The DA Old Boys Club has a deep distrust of Zille’s moves to transform the public face of the party by fast-tracking black leaders. The OBC refrain is that these new (read black) leaders are not imbued with the true liberal tradition — a DNA strand that apparently replicates only in whites.

Driven as she has been to change the DA’s race profile, Zille made missteps. She catapulted Lindiwe Mazibuko from naïve student to parliamentary leader of the DA, only to reportedly fall out with her.

More damaging was last year’s debacle, when Zille reportedly bulldozed wiser counsel to announce a merger with Agang and nominate its leader, Mamphela Ramphele, as the DA’s presidential candidate. Within days it all collapsed in recriminations.

At the time, I predicted that the 2014 election would be her last as party leader, but argued that “Zille getting it so wrong … does not negate the reality of DA growth demanding the fast tracking of credible black leaders who, coming from different philosophical traditions, will inevitably challenge many cherished liberal assumptions”.

After such a failure, many leaders would have been on the retreat. Not Zille. It is a measure of her indefatigable nature that there is now another Zille protégé, Mmusi Maimane, as heir-apparent.

Like Mazibuko, Maimane has had a breath-taking rise with Zille as the wind under his wings. In the past four years he has moved from obscurity to being the DA’s Johannesburg mayoral candidate, then hop-scotched through three or four other DA posts — each senior to the previous — to become leader of the opposition in the National Assembly and now possibly party leader.

There are no certainties. Maimane is coy about his candidature and might, in any case, be defeated. Or he might be elected and be a disaster.

But whatever happens to Maimane, Zille has kicked the door of the cosy OBC off its hinges and the racial complexion of the party has changed forever. Love her or loathe her, that’s her other important legacy.

Follow WSM on Twitter @TheJaundicedEye