In the run up to this year’s elections we will attempt to present key political leaders to you. Why? South Africans must elect and choose leaders that truly attempt to take our leadership legacy forward, so that we can fulfil our destiny, which means we have a collective responsibility as a nation.
Our destiny is to bring to the attention of the world that brand of leadership it so badly craves and needs. Collectively, leaders of this and even other generations have failed the people of this planet. Followers are disillusioned and when a beacon of hope for better leadership is held up, we gravitate towards it as the entire globe gravitates towards Nelson Mandela, or in fact the memory and feelings his leadership brought. The level of gravitation towards Nelson Mandela is a direct reflection of the hunger the world has for better leadership, and we are clearly very hungry!
What follows is our recent interview with Helen Zille:
BRLP: I saw you about four or five years ago, so I am interested in what you have learned about leadership over these past few years. I think it’s been a rough ride – it’s not easy.
HZ: I think the thing that stands out for me the most is how important the team is, and how you have to put really smart people into the team, who are prepared to tell you the things you don’t want to hear; who are prepared to take risks on their own turf and make mistakes; and who are driven to see results. Picking the right people for the team is the key thing.
BRLP: Corporate leaders would agree with you. I guess some people have a better gut feel for that than others – what have you learned about yourself in regards to this? Have you made mistakes?
HZ: Oh yes, everyone makes mistakes – I learn far more from my mistakes than I do from my successes. I’ve learned to be a better judge of situations and of issues. I’ve learned to be far more considerate when I get angry and I’ve learned to count to ten in a far better way than I did before. I have more discretion than I used to have, put it that way.
I’ve come to understand how to do succession planning and how best to do that – it wasn’t really on my radar five years ago but now it certainly is. I’ve also come to realise what elements of an organisation make it work, and I make sure they do work, but I let the people that I entrust to make that work and I don’t look over their shoulders. Trust is a very important ingredient in the function of an organisation – it’s got to be real trust between the components that make the thing work.
BRLP: Do you think that’s more difficult to achieve in politics than perhaps in business?
HZ: I’m not sure. We certainly have a very high level of trust in our party between the critical elements. There are always the inevitable tensions between individuals that can sometimes spill over, but at a core level there’s deep trust.
BRLP: What have you sacrificed over the last three to five years, and I’m not just talking about not seeing family – if you’re involved in politics surely it must affect even who you are? Have you changed?
HZ: I wouldn’t say I have sacrificed. I hope I’ve grown. I hope I am less affected by the turmoil that I face every day.
I’m less affected by negative comments. I’m less affected by controversy. But I think in a good sense. I don’t think I have become blunted – I’ve just learned what to take seriously and what not to take seriously. I’ve put things into perspective. I’ve learned what it means to say “take it from whence it comes”. I know who to take seriously and who not to take seriously.
I know when an insult is an insult or when it’s easily ignorable or the advice is good advice. So I’ve learned to be very discerning – I suppose that’s part of discretion. What I have lost is my voice, from speaking on platforms all the time, and singing and other things, I suppose that comes with the territory.
BRLP: What a school of life you’ve been through – no-one can imagine it unless they’ve been there. You’re in the middle of everything that affects everyone in the country.
HZ: Yes, but I love issues and I love challenges. That’s what keeps me motivated and gives me a sense of purpose. That’s what I love – it keeps me going. It was much harder being a teenager than where I have been the past 10 years – much harder.
BRLP: Over all these years have you retained your integrity? How does one safeguard ones integrity or qualities of integrity in a space where there seems to be so much of the opposite?
HZ: Politics should be a space the people with the most integrity are drawn to. Unfortunately, it isn’t always the case, but there are a lot of people with real integrity in politics. It isn’t a space where sharks swim to feed necessarily, and if it is a place where sharks swim to feed and if the sharks get to the top, then the voters put them there. The truth is that people get the government they voted for, which, therefore, is the government they deserve.
Politics is about power and power is simply the ability to make things happen, and democracy is just one way of organising how power is attained, how it’s exercised, how it’s called into account and how it’s rotated. The ability to make things happen can be used to further your own interest or in the broader interest, and if people are empowered to decide who has power to make things happen, then they must decide in whose interests people exercise power. They must make those judgments, and in a democracy, if corrupt politicians make it to the top, it’s the voters that put them there.
It’s really critical to have politicians of integrity because otherwise the entire power system becomes corrupted. I believe it’s an absolutely integral part of any representative system. It is a specific feature that I look for in the people that I put into positions.
BRLP: You’ve managed to keep yours intact?
HZ: I hope so, but you mustn’t ask me that, you must ask other people who I work with – ask my party, ask my colleagues. I hope I say what I do, and I do what I say.
BRLP: For how long should you stay in this position? Why is it that opposition leaders stay in their positions for as long as they do. What’s the difference?
HZ: Well they should – and those that don’t, wither on the vine. But the difference is that one is prescribed in the constitution and the other isn’t.
We have constitutional term limits in South Africa for a president but for no-one else – and it shouldn’t really matter for anybody else. Why should a party with five public representatives have term limits for its president?
I mean Bantu Holomisa doesn’t have access to state institutions that he can manipulate to his own ends, which is the reason you put term limits on presidents. Nothing else hangs on it.
Two terms as prescribed by the constitution for a president is 10 years.
Now next year (2014) in May, I will have been leader of the DA for seven years. So it’s not as if I’ve had term after term after term – it’s been seven years.
In other countries they don’t even have term limits for their presidents. Maggie Thatcher I think had four terms. In those contexts where it’s impossible for the leaders to manipulate the constitution – because the constitution is so strong and because the institutions of the constitution are so strong and independent and there are so many checks and balances – the term limits for a president is not really that significant.
In an emerging democracy where institutions are really vulnerable, term limits for a president are very important.
Having said that you need two terms in order to make any kind of impact in government.
My position has been quite clear to my party. I’ve said the minute someone comes along who can do this job better than me, that is grow the party and hold it together, I will be the first to step down.
We poll all the time. We will know when the time comes. I’m happy to continue doing this job, I love it. I’m full of energy for it, I have appetite for it.
But I’m not married to it and I’m not determined to hold onto it if someone can do it better.
BRLP: Some leaders have said to me – isn’t it time for a leader of colour?
HZ: Put it this way – the DA has more black voters than any other opposition party in South Africa, certainly more than all the black-led parties in South Africa. Even if there wasn’t a single white, coloured or Indian voter we would still be the biggest opposition party.
My argument, and when I became the leader of the party from being in the position of a councillor in the City of Cape Town, I said my plan was to build many platforms for the many voices and many faces in the party. I’ve done my best to build up those faces and to magnify those voices. So we have Lindiwe Mazibuko, who is a very established brand, she’s got the most important platform in the DA, she’s leader of the opposition in Parliament – that’s fantastic. We’ve got Mmusi Maimane who is our national spokesperson – he’s also our premier candidate in Gauteng.
We really are going all out to put together a government of the election, if we can. We’ve got Patricia de Lille as you know. We’ve got people like Wilmot James, who’s our national/federal chairperson. We’ve got Makashule Ghana who’s our deputy chairman. We’ve got Solly Msimango, who is the chair of Gauteng North. We’ve got Sizwe Nkhulu – he’s our leader in KwaZulu-Natal, and so on.
We are the most diverse party South Africa has ever had. We’ve got the most diverse leadership any party in South Africa has ever had. I consciously create platforms for all the other leaders in this party – consciously – and enable them to drive their issues, drive their profile. That’s my succession plan.
BRLP: It’s amazing how the perception may still exist among some that it’s a white party. I don’t know why that remains?
HZ: I’ve made it my absolute business to change that, but the reason it hangs on is primarily because we’ve allowed our opponents to define who we are. That’s why we ran our “Know Your DA” campaign, because I was sick and tired of being told who we are by the people. I said this is who we are.
BRLP: After all these interviews with leaders over the past 15 years, one thing we have discovered is that leaders are in the business of movement. So you give a leader some responsibility and they must move it from where it is to some place better. In the process, we uncovered the universal law of movement and that universal process leaders use to create movement. With that backdrop, just summarise what you’ve moved since you became the leader of the DA. You’ve mentioned some already.
HZ: Tony Leon moved us into the official opposition. I moved us into becoming a party of government. So people have stopped seeing us as just a party of opposition, though they think we are a very good opposition – that is Tony’s legacy. He created the platform for me to be able to move the DA to becoming a party of government. And people see that now we’re in government, we run the place competently. That’s been the big movement.
BRLP: So it’s been from a city to a province…
HZ: And 28 local authorities now throughout South Africa. And we’ve also moved into becoming the most diverse organisation in terms of membership votes and leadership, and next year we’ll get more black votes than all the other minority votes put together. And we have become a party that has majority black membership too.
BRLP: I’m interested in how you keep that unity in the party, because even recently there was speculation about disunity. Politics is a place of power and agendas, and no doubt there’s more happening in the DA than the public may know – just politics?
HZ: I do it by trying to be as accessible as I can, and keeping the conversation as open as we can. The more open we are with each other the less room there is for conniving in corridors.
The second way we do it – we have very carefully worked out systems and processes that everyone agrees with in terms of legitimacy and fairness, and everyone sticks with the process. That mitigates power struggles and conflict within the organisation.
The reason other opposition parties can’t succeed is because they can’t develop those structures and systems and process we have developed. And it’s those that can take an intense contest of competition and rivalry and turn it into a cohesive process that succeeds, and that’s what we’ve done.
We have our Electoral College systems, our selection panel systems; our membership systems and they work and help to mitigate the inevitable conflict and competition that comes up in political parties.
BRLP: Do you have a values belief? I know you have a work ethic like few – how do you make sure that that becomes part of the culture and filters all the way down because the DA is just getting bigger and bigger?
HZ: Our values are absolutely critical. We stand for the open society and we stand for the opportunity-driven society and that has very profound implications for an organisation and for our entire culture.
We believe fully in the rule of law, not the rule of individuals. We believe fully in non-racialism in a serious way. We believe in an open market economy to create jobs and beat poverty. But above all, the open society is premised on Karl Popper’s idea that you must always look for reasons that you may be wrong rather than proof that you are right. And that has a very profound impact on the culture of this organisation because within that context you welcome people with different ideas; you welcome people who challenge you; you welcome people who approach things differently and you welcome the debate around the issues. And then when you reach agreement through proper processes, because you believe in due process, everyone goes with it and seeks to make it a success. That’s a profound culture within an organisation.
If we ever start mobilising on the basis of race or turning the organisation into a cult of personalities, or if we have people subverting the system in their own interests, then it will bury our values and our culture. That’s why we put huge effort into training all our public representatives, putting them through a tough values test actually; that’s why we do our young leaders programme every year, because we have to keep our values and understanding of our vision as part of what we do.
BRLP: Your biggest challenge now as a leader?
HZ: Well my biggest leadership challenge is always the next election, isn’t it?
BRLP: That’s the obvious one, but yes, a big one.
HZ: That’s the big one – always. We’ve got to get our message to the voters and we’ve got to say to them we’re a party for the people and if you are looking for somebody to make things happen in your interests, the DA is the best choice for you, whatever race or background you are.
BRLP: Ok, quickly – the current political landscape – you mentioned a bit in the beginning. You’ve got Malema entering, who could take some votes away from the ANC that you may not be able to.
HZ: Well, he’s taking votes from everyone, I promise you.
BRLP: So give me your view from the ANC to the DA to Dr Mamphela Ramphele coming in, Malema. As you said – an exciting election, a very difficult and challenging one, but exciting. Your overview of this landscape?
HZ: Before every new election Adriaan, we have a rash of new parties coming on board. We had UDM before 1999, we had the ID before 2004, we had Cope before 2009 and now we’ve got the EFF, we’ve got Ramphele – it always happens before an election.
Those parties start but every single one of them has been like a Namaqualand flower – they come up and then they wither away. The reason why that is, is because it’s incredibly difficult to start, build and sustain a political party with all its systems, structures and processes and complexities over the whole country.
It’s incredibly difficult. And so we are rapidly moving towards a two party system. The ANC is coming apart. We will be the nucleus of a new majority. It will be at the non-racial democratic constitutional market-orientated centre of politics.
So my job is to unite while they are all dividing. And so my challenge is to bring that unity – we’ve done that with the ID, we’re doing it with more and more, and we’re holding the party together very well and it’s growing very well. That’s my job in this fluid context.
It’s not going to be easy. I get frustrated with all these new parties that come up, because as I say we’re in a race against time and it’s just a diversion from the main action. But we’re making good progress.
BRLP: So Malema will make a difference?
HZ: He will definitely make a dent in this election, no question…
BRLP: I spent two-and-a-half hours with him, just the two of us, and I knew one thing when I walked out there – he’s not going to disappear from the political scene.
HZ: Well the ANC might declare him bankrupt before this election, which means that he can’t stand because he owes the taxman R16 million.
So they will use anything they can to get at him. But you know South Africans – they all love a martyr, they love a victim.
BRLP: Someone said – the e-toll strategy in Gauteng, does it not target your current audience, as opposed to new voters?
HZ: No, not at all – it’s a completely non-racial issue. It cuts across race and those are the best issues for us. Everybody – black, white – everybody is furious about the way it’s been handled.
BRLP: Can you, Helen Zille, with your hand on your heart, say that Maimane is a better candidate in Gauteng compared with other white DA leaders in Gauteng or is it a race-based strategy to woo the black voters?
HZ: The point is, I can put my hand on my heart and say he is the best candidate to be our premier candidate. We have a context. He is the best candidate.
BRLP: For the entire context which is?
HZ: Well you only make decisions in the entire context don’t you?
BRLP: Part of the context being that we have to cater for all South Africans – leaders who can engage all of them?
HZ: I said when I became the leader of this party – this will be a party of many faces and many voices. We will create leadership platforms for many faces and many voices. They must all share our values, they must all share our vision.
Mmusi is not a token leader in any way. He grew up in Soweto, he defied the odds, he’s got two Masters Degrees, he is an unbelievably charismatic speaker and he is an extraordinary individual with deep values and principles.
He is the best candidate believe me, not that the other people aren’t, but in the context, in this time and in this place, he is the best candidate – with my hand on my heart.
BRLP: What leadership lessons did you learn through the discussions with Ramphele?
HZ: What I learned from that experience was that you’re generous to a point and then you say, no, no more.
And then you know what your best alternative to a negotiated agreement is. You know where you’ve got to draw a line in the sand.
BRLP: Hypothetically, what would you do first if elected president?
HZ: If I was elected president, I would appoint the right people in the right places. I would put the right ministers in and I would make sure we had directors-general in who could really do the job.
Adriaan Groenewald, a lead contributor to the BR Leadership Platform, is a leadership expert and managing director and co-founder of Leadership Platform (www.leadershipplatform.com / or follow him on Twitter: @AdriaanG_LP).