Helen Zille, former Mayor of Cape Town (2006-2009) and winner of the 2008 World Mayor Prize



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Helen Zille: Mayor of Cape Town
to Premier of the Western Cape

By Andrew Stevens

1 May 2009: As Mayor of Cape Town (2006-2009), South Africa’s legislative capital and leading tourist destination, Helen Zille overcame an aborted attempt by the provincial government to downgrade her office and an attempted coalition coup. Elected as leader of the opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), with a background as a provincial and national legislator behind her, she was a finalist for South African Woman of the Year in 2003.  Zille went on to use the mayoralty as a stepping stone to both further national prominence and ultimately to become Western Cape premier herself, standing down as mayor in April 2009. Helen Zille has won the 2008 World Mayor Prize.

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Zille’s role in public life began with a stint as political correspondent for the Rand Daily Mail, South Africa’s leading liberal newspaper during the apartheid era. While at the paper, she emerged as a leading anti-apartheid critic, famously exposing the circumstances behind Steve Biko’s death under police custody in 1977, which was claimed to have been as a result of self-inflicted wounds. She also made her name for herself at the height of apartheid as a member of the Black Sash white women’s resistance movement and as a peace activist in her adopted city of Cape Town. She then worked in public affairs as a public policy consultant and as director of communications for the University of Cape Town.

Prior to becoming mayor, Zille was elected as a member of the Western Cape provincial legislature in 1999, serving as executive council member (MEC) for education until 2001 and then as leader of the opposition, before being elected as an MP to the South African Parliament in 2004, also in Cape Town. Zille is leader of the Democratic Alliance, a relatively recent party in post-apartheid South Africa, but with antecedents within earlier parties of the liberal democratic multiracial tradition in South African politics, most notably the Progressive Party of Helen Suzman.  The Progressive Party, with its roots in the urban liberal intelligentsia of the white minority population, was the principal opposition movement within the whites-only Parliament during apartheid.  Through the process of several mergers, the Party extended its narrow urban support base, emerging in 2000 as the Democratic Alliance and the primary opposition to the ruling African National Congress in the non-racial constitutional dispensation of the post-apartheid era.


Cape Town itself is regarded as a metropolitan municipality under the South African Constitution of 1996, the highest form of local government and is comparable to unified city-county entities in the US. The City of Cape Town owes its designated status to the provincial government however. The city itself is governed by a 210-member city council, with a 12-member executive headed by Zille as executive mayor, who works in conjunction with an appointed city manager. The council itself is elected by a hybrid proportional system, with 105 members each representing a single ward and the remainder chosen from a proportional list. At the last elections in 2006, the Democratic Alliance emerged as the largest party with 90 seats, followed by the ANC with 81 seats. The council’s work is administered through 23 sub-councils, which cross the boundaries of the seven former town councils that now comprise the City of Cape Town.

Because of the close-run nature of the 2006 city election results, where the Democratic Alliance was able to form an administration with the support of minor parties, relations between Zille and the ANC in both the city council and the provincial legislature began on an immediately strained footing. Cape Town has seen a steady succession of mayors and interim leaders on account of discredited ANC rule in the city, with predecessors caught up in corruption and internet porn scandals, and it is now the only major city in the country not governed by the ANC.

Not long after Zille’s election as mayor, a plan was floated by the ANC-led regional executive council to downgrade the city mayor’s post to a ceremonial role and the distribute the executive powers among the city council itself, with the need for more ‘inclusive’ governance given as the reason. The “Mugabe-style” plan led to inevitable outrage from both Zille herself and a number of organisations, though the impasse was avoided by level-headed negotiation (Zille advised her party at the Convention for a Democratic South Africa).

A further crisis emerged when the African Muslim Party left her coalition over Zille's failure to comply with its leader's demand for the post of deputy mayor, though Zille later obtained the support of the Independent Democrats to retain her position as mayor. Her combative stand on drugs in the Cape led to her arrest in September 2007 on charges of participating in an illegal gathering, though these were later dropped and she issued her own action for wrongful arrest.  Recently she has risked her position by questioning corruption within the South African police and opposing the disbanding of the anti-corruption Scorpions unit.  These episodes have seen the mayor emerge not only unscathed but enhanced, compared to her divisive and opportunist opponents.

Regarded as an astute media operator, the National Press Club dubbed Helen Zille ‘Newsmaker of 2006’ on account of her surviving post-election coup attempts and the city’s preparation work for the 2010 World Cup.

In South Africa’s 2009 general election, Zille fronted efforts by her party to dent the ANC’s perpetual dominance of South African political life.  While the ANC remained in power nationally, Zille did oversee an increase in her party’s tally of seats in the national assembly, emerging as a more credible official opposition.  More significantly for Zille however, the DA achieved a breakthrough in the Western Cape province, where it unseated the ANC-led provincial administration.  Zille will now sit as Western Cape premier, following her victory, which many put down to the achievements showcased in Cape Town during her tenure as mayor.

Mayor Zille is married to Johann Maree and has two sons.


Helen Zille with the 2008 World Mayor Prize


On other pages:
Helen Zille - My aim for South Africa: An open, opportunity-driven society
The African National Congress (ANC) won the 2009 South African elections convincingly but, nationally, fell just short of the two-thirds majority, which it easily passed five years earlier. The ANC also won in eight of South Africa’s nine provinces, the only exception being the Western Cape, where the Democratic Alliance (DA), led by Cape Town Mayor Helen Zille, received 51 per cent of the provincial vote. Mayor Zille received a hero's welcome in Cape Town where she told her supporters that the DA had managed to reduce the ANC's grip on the country. "The results are very good for South Africa," she said.

Helen Zille, who will now become Western Cape premier, said she planned to use Cape Town and the province to showcase the DA’s abilities before making a stronger run at national government in 2014. She said she wanted to prove the DA would govern for all the people of the province.

At this election, she almost doubled the DA’s 2004 share of the vote in the Western Cape, increasing it to 51.5 per cent from just over 27 per cent five years ago. Final results from the Western Cape showed more than a million people voted DA compared with 425,000 in the 2004 election.

Interviewed after she was awarded the 2008 World Mayor Prize, Helen Zille described the fundamental difference between the DA and the ANC: “The key difference between the ANC and the DA can be summarised best in Afrikaans. I have not yet found a crisp English equivalent, and I think it is time to invent one!” More