I've lived the dream, says outgoing Western Cape premier Helen Zille
Outgoing Western Cape premier Helen Zille finds me stranded and panicking outside the frosted-glass doors to her offices, hoping someone sees me and swipes me in. It's 8.02am, two minutes after the scheduled start of our 8am interview. The elevator doors open and out comes Zille, with her protector in tow and another staffer.
"Hey, Andisiwe, it's so good to see you!" she says, and repeatedly apologises for being late.
As we walk towards her office - through the offices of her administrative staff - Zille greets each one of them by name, inquiring about their long weekend. She pays particular attention to her secretary, Donnae Strydom, also known as the Rottweiler. She moves around Strydom's desk and gives her a hug. I sense there is more to the occasion but wouldn't want to intrude.
Someone suggests we move the interview to "the media lounge", a room facing Zille's office. Before we walk out, Zille turns to a mirror and replenishes her lipstick. "I am making sure I look good for your lens," she jokes with my colleague Esa Alexander, who has since joined us.
"I have literally lived the dream." This is how she responds to a question about her 10 years as political head of the only province not governed by the ANC. "With all the pressure, all the intensity and all the challenges ." she adds.
Our interview takes place just two weeks before the May 8 elections, which will signal the end of her stint as premier. The constitution restricts premiers to two five-year terms and Zille is the first Western Cape premier to complete even one term of office, never mind two. Her predecessors fell by the wayside, either due to failing coalitions or being removed as a result of internal party politics.
"I haven't ever felt like there was anybody with a dagger in my back behind me. Never ever. And that's very, very unusual," notes Zille.
She attributes this to teamwork.
"We don't have factions, people pulling in different directions. We are a really stable team and we support each other." This, Zille says, has been the highlight of her 10 years in office.
With 10 working days left before the national elections, Zille is packing up her office and also her home at Leeuwenhof, the official residence of the premier of the Western Cape. "I pack two boxes every day and I have bought kists to store my stuff in," she says. And yes, she is doing the packing herself.
In the process, she has come across some interesting old speeches and writings, which she says are still relevant today.
She cites an article she wrote in 2005 about the trajectory of state capture, which includes centralisation of power, cronyism and cadre deployment, corruption and the criminal state.
"Interestingly, in 2013 or 2014, I wrote that state capture was the big story. I've been writing about this for literally years and suddenly the media discovers it in 2015 and 2016 as if it's a completely new revelation. When I was writing it, I was racist, and all the labels came out," she says.
Zille repeatedly references the role journalists have played in South African politics in recent years and specifically emphasises how she and the DA have been dealt a bad hand by the media.
She has "very strongly" taken on some journalists whom she felt woefully misrepresented things.
"They don't like that, obviously. They feel they can write what they like about people but never be held to account themselves. There has been a lot of woeful distortion by my political opponents that has been taken up in the media."
While she acknowledges that there are some excellent journalists, Zille says those she is criticising are those who fundamentally think that the good guys in the ANC have a monopoly on the moral high ground in SA.
"They then try to create some kind of moral equivalence between the corrupt in the ANC and those of us who oppose the ANC from the DA's perspective, so we get a completely unfair and negative media driven by journalists who are trying to preserve their own political correctness rather than convey the facts of the story," she says.
I ask Zille: What do you think is the story of this election? If you were an editor, what story would you want your reporters to focus on?
Zille thinks hard. "Whether we are going to get the spread of coalitions to other provinces. That's going to be a huge challenge and how those coalitions are going to be formed."
She believes President Cyril Ramaphosa is in a position similar to that of FW de Klerk towards the last days of apartheid. Back then, the National Party was profoundly divided and irredeemable in its own right and De Klerk had to strategise on how to get the party and the country out of the mess it was in.
"The big question is what calculation Cyril Ramaphosa will make if the ANC falls under 50% in any province. Will he make the calculation to move towards constitutionalism and the rule of law and try to realign politics along those lines, or is he going to give in to populist pressure just like FW was under from his right wing?"According to Zille, moving in the direction of the EFF and expropriation without compensation and national racialism would be the populist route, which she hopes Ramaphosa will avoid."When you are sitting on top of a huge party which has become a broad church and which is irreconcilably divided between two alternative world views, and an election delivers you under 50%, you have an epoch-making decision to take and I see that shaping up for Cyril, potentially, in this election."Opposition parties have equally huge responsibilities in the way they respond to that, she says.Zille doesn't mince her words. The only time she shows a soft side is when talking about her two-year-old granddaughter, whom she describes as "tough". She also reveals: "I am expecting another grandchild!"She appears uncomfortable talking about what direction the DA should take if the ANC falls below 50% in any provinces.She gives a long-winded answer about the difficulties of minority and coalition governments and eventually adds: "The strongest position would be to be in opposition and to exercise the muscle to ensure the right policy decisions are made and the government is accountable for the proper disbursement of funds."That's the option I would go for but I am not the leader of my party and I don't want to now be seen to second-guess or manipulate behind the scenes," she says.This is obviously a topic that bothers her, as she voluntarily insists she has never tried to manipulate the party or its processes from behind the scenes.She blames the ANC for a narrative that says the DA is a party controlled by whites, despite the numbers of black people in the party's leadership."It makes no difference to the ANC, they have got that one line that they will find proof of wherever. I have never interfered and I have never tried to run the DA from behind the scenes and I am not going to try to do that now."So, besides organising a tax revolt, what will she be doing when she leaves office?"I don't know," she says sternly. "That's the truth.I haven't got any firm plans at the moment. I have a couple of options, but no firm plans."Zille created a social-media storm in January when she threatened in a tweet to lead a tax revolt.
"I'm waiting to see how many people get prosecuted and land in jail in a reasonable amount of time after the Zondo commission. If they do not, just watch me. I will be organising the #TaxRevolt. I have tried the electoral route for years. Voters seem to like voting for corruption," read the tweet."You see the essence of a democracy is accountability," she says. "Now the reason corruption carries on unabated is because there is no accountability in the system."Normally, when a government loots and steals people's money on the scale we have seen, the voters vote it out. We heard Cyril say at the weekend, don't punish the ANC at the polls. Polls are there to punish a corrupt government, so if people vote for the ANC again, and they get exactly the same people on that list - to me if you vote for that list, you are an accomplice to corruption."You can't be serious about democratic accountability and vote for the ANC's list. That is not possible," Zille adds."So what do we do for accountability? The institutions of state are not functioning ."Zille cites the e-tolls boycott as a successful example of a tax revolt in SA. "It was the way the public said, 'Look, tolling is one of the most expensive ways of paying for roads. This was merely done to cream off some nice contracts on the top of it . we much prefer to do this through a proper fuel levy that is ring-fenced for the roads and we are not interested in this e-tolling system and no-one was consulted and we reject this policy.'"That's a method of holding a government accountable and we have seen how it worked."She says she has been researching the subject and realised that a tax revolt would be even more successful at local government level.She cites the example of Sannieshof, a small town in the North West province, where residents pay their rates and service charges into a trust. They have appointed expert administrators to run the accounts and directly pay service providers for services to the municipality."It's not like we don't want to pay but we don't want to feed corruption. You are saying, 'I'll be damned if I'm going to pour this money into these corrupt schemes.'"That is the kind of thing that I'd be very happy to go and organise, because that is the only thing that is going to get those small towns accountable. You've got a band of looters who are stealing people dry, nothing works . people have got no mechanism to hold people to account. So, that's the kind of strategy we think about in a tax revolt."During the interview, I have twice asked Zille about her low points over the past 10 years. Twice she has evaded the question.As we wrap up, I ask again. "There have been some low points, but there is a quote that says, 'In politics, things are never as bad or as good as they seem.' At the very lowest moments, you say, 'This too will pass.' At the high moments, you say, 'This is not going to last very long,' and both are true."