Book review: Helen of Hillbrow

25 October 2016 - 09:50 By Lin Sampson


She comes from a partly Jewish immigrant German family. Her father and his brother came to South Africa in the 1950s to work in a dynamite factory and to learn English. The women in her family were bold liberals active in social welfare work, something Zille has channelled.The thrust of this book is her personal history, her unexpected vulnerability and the intensity of her passions.There is also the sense of small-town living that is so reflective of the lives of the poorer whites who lived in South Africa in the 1950s, scrimping and saving to educate their children. The portrait of her grandmother is loving as she watered her African violets in a small flat in Hillbrow surrounded by pictures of her family who had perished in the Holocaust.Zille's young adult years were tumultuous, men found her desirable and she had a queue of suitors.An emotional and moral perfectionist, she started starving herself and ended with what would turn into serious anorexia as she went from skinny to skeletal."I had been a plump teenager, craving affirmation, and felt my insecurities could be solved by losing weight," she writes.She always earned her keep, first as a shelf packer at Checkers "earning about R10 a week which I needed for music lessons", but pursued her dream of becoming a journalist and joined the cadet team on the Rand Daily Mail after completing a BA degree at UCT.She was sensible enough to know that good-looking guys were trouble.When she met her present husband Paul Maree it was on the eve of her marriage to a glamorous New Yorker. But when it came to doing the right thing, her intuition never let her down and Maree was the man for her.She lucked out; it was his support that often held her up, but not without its funny side. One late night someone called Samantha phoned and said to her, "I am having an affair with your husband and I am pregnant." Although it was a hoax, it provided a few anxious moments, "And then we both remembered he'd had a vasectomy!"She was careless of trend, driving about in her old blue Toyota, wearing a jumble sale jumper and a pair of clunky running shoes.After her marriage, she entered another level of politics. Her life between 2000 and 2007 required particular resilience as the battle for the soul of the DA raged and the ANC tried to consolidate its hold on South Africa.She was capable of using Byzantine tactics, whiplash negotiation, pincer manoeuvres; she had the courage and bravery of a soldier, driving into atownship at midnight to negotiate with Bonginkosi Madikizele who wanted her help."'What's in it for the DA?' I asked. I will never forget his answer. 'We will take enough votes from the ANC to enable the DA to win the election'."Here was ANC royalty promising to get Zille elected mayor of Cape Town, while a large faction of her own party was doing everything to prevent it.Only Helen.Not Without a Fight by Helen Zille, published by Penguin Random House, R380

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