Cape Town - There is a fine line between diplomacy and hypocrisy and Helen Zille is happy to confess she dislikes both.
The leader of the DA and premier of the Western Cape has made considerable personal sacrifices for the sake of a busy political career, but dousing her fiery spirit is not one of them.
“I’d rather tell it like I see it,” she admits, shortly after she enters the lounge of the grand Leeuwenhof house against the slope of Table Mountain, where premiers live, dressed for yet another “political” engagement.
She has hardly had time to catch a breath. She enters clutching the front of a colourful outfit in one hand, explaining there has been a “wardrobe malfunction”. But it isn’t serious and things hold together for the duration of the interview.
Mere minutes before she had been at a function in Cape Town where she handed out medals at a football club. And she arrived there from Joburg, where she had been campaigning for her party. Out of sight, at the foot of a flight of stairs, we’d discover later, is a suitcase and a bag still sealed and packed from the flight south.
There is Helen Zille the tigress, accused of being a despot even by those whom she might have considered allies.
But she insists there is also Helen Zille the team player.
“There is no other life for me. I like the pressure, the conflict, the teamwork. I am surrounded by a team of intelligent, strong people. We do not always agree with each other and we are able to say so.”
As a politician and leader with the prominence Zille has achieved over the years, she has obviously had the opportunity to mix it with others of her ilk. Which is why it comes as no little surprise when she names Ryan Coetzee first when asked to highlight interesting people she has had to deal with during her career.
Coetzee, a South African politician and political strategist, is currently serving as a special adviser to deputy prime minister of Britain Nick Clegg.
He served as an MP between 2004 and 2008, as chief executive of the DA between 2004 and 2009, and as the party’s general election campaign chief in 2006, 2009 and 2011. He was Zille’s chief adviser between 2009 and 2012.
But then she also produces three other names – former US secretary of state Henry Kissinger, former US president Bill Clinton and current German leader Angela Merkel.
“I once had a long conversation with Kissinger. He and Merkel are highly intelligent people. Merkel is my role model in politics.
“Merkel is honest, direct. Clinton is a great communicator.”
The soft light of the lounge at Leeuwenhof requires a repositioning for the photographer. Zille prefers to offer the left side of her face to the camera, as did former president FW de Klerk, but she does not insist. Neither did De Klerk.
Left or right, the face is easily creased by a smile and it happens regularly during the interview.
“I enjoy irony and contradiction. There is plenty of material for that in South Africa,” she says.
But the business of politics is mostly serious. And for Zille it is a life-long involvement, growing up as she did in a home where her mother was active as a member of the Black Sash, an organisation that would later recruit the daughter too.
“I grew up in a very political family. We were always aware of what was going on, we always had the newspapers in the house.”
As in business, there is not much room for sentiment in politics. What has to be done has to be done. And maybe that is why family so frequently becomes an unwilling background noise and how regular absences become the greatest sacrifices.
Children growing up, husband coping, mother on the next flight out.
When asked about her greatest regret, Zille mentions a bad knee injury her youngest son had while playing rugby. She and her husband had underestimated how serious it was. “Now that knee is a real problem for him,” she admits.
“It is only a very mature and balanced husband who would be able to cope with this, and my husband has been incredibly supportive. And still, it was easier to do this in politics than to bring up children while running a small business, as I did before I entered politics.
“We go out so rarely. People always want to raise issues with me, so we cannot do that anymore. At least we still get a chance to go out for a meal. At least people leave you alone then, they recognise that you only want to spend some time with your family.”
What does the future hold?
“Well, firstly the election. By Sunday, we should know the results. Then we will go on from there.”
And does she see an improvement in the leadership within the governing ANC after that?
“The ANC is run with a close crony system. Zuma has his friends in the right places. They look after him and he looks after them. Everybody else is blocked off. Everything is managed by the people at the top. It is not like the DA where a new person like (DA Gauteng leader Mmusi) Maimane can come up through the ranks.
“I did all I could do to try and get our voters to turn out. The ANC is irredeemable. It can no longer be changed from the inside. The only viable option is the DA.”
The interview is over, and so is Zille’s brief respite at home. With election day looming, there is still plenty to be done.