Helen Zille, the woman who exposed a major apartheid-era coverup, is leaving South African politics

South African opposition Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille (C) speaks to the media before casting her vote in Rondebosch, Cape Town, May 7, 2014.
South African opposition Democratic Alliance leader Helen Zille (C) speaks to the media before casting her vote in Rondebosch, Cape Town, May 7, 2014.
Image: Reuters/Sumaya Hisham
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The leader of South Africa’s main opposition party is stepping down. On Apr. 12, Helen Zille, 64, announced she will not be seeking reelection at the May 2015 congress of the Democratic Alliance (DA), though she will retain her position as premier of Western Cape province through Dec. 2019.

The story of Helen Zille is the story of one of South Africa’s most intriguing political figures. She was born in Johannesburg in 1951 to a pair of German nationals—escapees from Nazi Germany, as two of Zille’s grandparents were Jewish. Her mother was an activist with the Black Sash Advice Service, a well-known women’s anti-apartheid group. This was perhaps Zille’s first exposure to the anti-apartheid movement and broader South African progressivism (she would later join the Black Sashes in the 1980s). But it was her work as a journalist during apartheid years that laid the true groundwork for her—at times tumultuous—political ascent.

After graduating from the University of Witwatersrand, Zille became a political reporter for a Johannesburg newspaper, The Rand Daily Mail. In 1977, South Africa’s notorious apartheid-era minister of justice, James T. Kruger, announced that famed human-rights activist, Steve Biko, had died in his cell at a Pretoria prison after a long hunger strike. But Zille was not convinced. She tracked down and interviewed the doctors involved in compiling Biko’s post-mortem analysis, ultimately concluding that “the black consciousness leader showed no signs of hunger strike or dehydration.” Zille was inundated with death threats immediately following publication; Kruger threatened to shut down the paper.

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“Dr. Jonathan Gluckman, a pathologist, was prepared to speak to us on conditions of strict anonymity,” Zille recalled in a 2007 op-ed for South Africa’s IOL News. “Gluckman gave us the evidence we required in the form of the results of the lumbar puncture which showed blood in Biko’s spinal fluid—a clear sign of brain damage.”

“On the basis of my interviews and the medical records supplied by Gluckman,” she noted, “We were able to run a lead story headlined ‘No sign of hunger strike—Biko doctors,’ in which we reported that brain damage was the likely cause of death.”

Within 48 hours of publication, Zille was summoned to South Africa’s Press Council—which she described as a “quasi-court,” where justice Oscar Galgut declared Zille, and her editor Allister Sparks, guilty of “tendentious reporting.” Zille and Sparks were ordered to publish a correction. “This ‘guilty’ verdict, I understood, was the minimum Kruger required as an alternative to banning us outright,” she wrote. “I will never forget that phrase, ‘tendentious reporting.’ I was still young and idealistic enough to become tearful at such injustice.”

“The murder of Biko marked the start of the darkest decade in the history of apartheid,” she concluded. The Rand Daily Mail, due in large part to the anti-apartheid politics of some of its writers and editors, was shut down in 1985.

Since turning to politics, Zille’s more notable engagements have included:

And yet, despite journalistic bona fides most reporters would trade limbs for, as a politician Zille is not exactly known for a congenial relationship with South African press. “She is the ultimate media bully,” wrote columnist Verashni Pillay in an essay for South Africa’s Mail and Guardian. “Many journalists have had the unpleasant experience of Zille calling them up and screaming at them. Editors have had to endure her attempts to control editorial decisions with shrill, high-volume phone calls.”

Pillay details a string of affronts. As premier of Western Cape, Zille reportedly canceled all government subscriptions to The Cape Times for what some saw as unfavorable coverage. Zille claimed it was due to a decline in the paper’s quality of reportage. “You scrutinize me, I’ll scrutinize you right back!” she once told another journalist, brandishing a print-out of the reporter’s tweets.

After years of weathering the same scrutiny she once applied to some of the most abjectly amoral men in human history, Zille is understandably tired. And perhaps a bit perplexed; never quite grasping that all politicians, even the most altruistic and progressive, are subject to unyielding media interest. (And Zille’s record, it’s worth noting, is hardly spotless.) According to Cape Town journalist Janet Heard, Zille punctuated her retirement announcement with the following statement: “I have led the DA for eight years. Sometimes it feels like 80 years, other times eight months.” In a press release published by the DA on the day she announced her retirement, Zille added: “I would rather err on the side of being ahead of my time.”