Helen Zille is an extraordinary woman. One of those you feel privileged to have met and that inspire you in your life and work. At an event of the Friedrich Naumann Foundation for Freedom in Brussels, Helen Zille discussed the current state of affairs in South Africa and the challenges for liberals in Africa as well as in Europe with Gwendolyn Rutten, leader of the Flemish Open VLD and Austrian MEP and Vice-Chair of NEOS Angelika Mlinar. Gwendolyn Rutten praised Zille for her relentless activism and optimism: “you made me proud again, proud to be a liberal!” In Rutten’s opinion liberalism is the right mix of three basic ingredients: optimism, problem-solving and freedom. Helen Zille combines all of those ingredients in her past work as a journalist and activist as well as her political career.
Helen Zille, anti-apartheid activist and leader of the Democratic Alliance, has been an outspoken advocate for civil and political rights all her life. In her early days as a political correspondent for Rand Daily Mail, she exposed the cover-up of anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko’s death. In her political career as former Mayor of the city of Cape Town she received the 2008 World Mayor Prize. Since 2007, in her role as leader of the Democratic Alliance, Zille continues to challenge the ruling government of President Zuma on a number of issues, from corruption and cronyism to backtracking on much needed economic reforms. In recognition of Zille’s lifework in the name of freedom, the liberal politician was awarded the Friedrich Naumann Freedom Prize 2014 she received in Frankfurt on November 8.
Helen Zille is an optimist. She advocates for a world where people are judged by their contribution to society, not their ethnic or religious background. To achieve her goal, she wants to reform South Africa and develop a full-blown democracy. “Elections are not enough to have a democracy”, she repeats relentlessly “it is the change of government through peaceful and just elections that make it a democracy”. She believes time has come for change in South Africa. The ruling African National Congress (ANC) is so divided that it is unable to govern. All over the country citizens are more and more disappointed and looking for alternatives to the ANC.
In South Africa, two main political movements are filling the vacuum left by the ANC, the leftist Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) and the liberal Democratic Alliance (DA). Helen Zille is actively fighting the model of society based on patronage that has been established by the ANC. Her party, the DA’s Leitmotiv is to build “an open opportunity society for all”. The party puts this Leitmotiv into practice both internally and where it is in government. Its strategy has been to build its strength from the bottom up. By entering government at the local level and proving to the people that the Democratic Alliance was there to make a change, it has been gradually increasing its support and currently holds the government in 30 municipalities as well as the Western Cape, one of nine provinces. A strategy bearing fruits – the Democratic Alliance gained more and more support from one election to the next and won 22% of votes in the general elections this past May. Step by step, the DA has been proving that, unlike what its opponents say, it is not a racial party.
In Zille’s view, to overcome the current political deadlock, South Africa needs a total realignment of politics along values and ideological lines. Only then, will pluralism become a reality in South Africa. But Zille does not shy away from the task. She believes that it is possible and that “if we succeed in building a liberal and inclusive democracy in a multiethnic state, we would be an example for the world.” Indeed, “if life started in Africa, political progress will come from Africa too”, Zille closed her remarks winking at the audience.