Party people: Helen Zille, with outgoing leader Tony Leon, thanks voters and supporters after being nominated the new leader of the DA in May 2007. Picture: ARNOLD PRONTO
Party people: Helen Zille, with outgoing leader Tony Leon, thanks voters and supporters after being nominated the new leader of the DA in May 2007. Picture: ARNOLD PRONTO

Not many South Africans know that Western Cape Premier Helen Zille was shot, starved into a skeletal state, humiliated in a beauty contest and faced hundreds of Robert Mugabe’s guerillas armed only with a pen.

Her autobiography has been described as one of the most fascinating political stories of our time, which it undoubtedly is — but there is much more to it than politics.

It is at times hilarious, poignant and pertinent but always insightful and educational for anyone whose daily diet is not laced with SA’s political power struggles and machinations. It’s a 500-page hardback door-stopper, yet I raced through it because it’s so readable — in parts like a thriller.

Zille first made a name for herself at the Rand Daily Mail newspaper, where she blew apart the apartheid government’s lies that Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko died on a hunger strike. Doctors, too scared to be named, denied the government story, with one of them telling Zille that Biko was overweight when he died.

"We at the Rand Daily Mail were trying to force an inquest and we did so. He was murdered," Zille writes.

She joined the Democratic Party, which became the DA in the mid-1990s and was asked to reformulate its education policy.

Zille was elected as an MP in 2004 and served on the portfolio committee on education — a lifelong passion of hers.

She is driven, she says in an interview, by an overriding sense of duty, inculcated by her parents. So when former DA leader Tony Leon gave her the N2 constituency — a Xhosa-speaking area of Cape Town to start DA branches in Langa and Nyanga — she set out to increase black membership.

"If we didn’t do so, then democracy in SA would fail," Zille says.

Black people who initially joined the DA were tried in kangaroo courts, had their homes destroyed and a leader’s three children were burnt to death. Zille spoke at the funeral, one she hardly remembers so traumatised was she by the sorrowful sight of the tiny coffins.

Returning one night from a DA event in Khayelitsha, her new car was attacked, but she raced home after hearing the windows being smashed. "I’m sorry but the car was stoned," she told her husband, Johann Maree, who, after inspecting it by torchlight, pointed out that she had been shot at.

Two bullets had gone through the driver’s seat, hit Zille but hadn’t penetrated her skin.

"I then realised my back was seriously painful, with a huge bruise at the bottom of my spine," she writes. In 2006, Zille was elected Cape Town mayor and a year later, became the DA leader. She devotes an aptly named chapter — Of Crosstitutes and Criminals — to the floor-crossing window in 2007.

As her party set out to "fix a failing and near-bankrupt municipality" in Cape Town, she was totally unaware of a secret recruiting plan by the DA’s then Western Cape chairman, Kent Morkel. He intended to start a new party behind her back.

It later emerged that Morkel was doing business with Badih Chaaban, "who boasted about his links with the Cape Town underworld’s most notorious figures", writes Zille.

In April 2007, she was contacted by a Cape Town businessman who warned her that her life was in danger. Another death threat came from the kingpin of the city’s Mafia, Yuri Ulianitski. This time not only was her life imperilled, but those of her family too.

"However, it was Ulianitski who was assassinated," writes the former DA leader.

Behind-the-scenes dramas worthy of a soapie occurred when Zille invited Mamphela Ramphele to become the DA’s presidential candidate in the 2014 elections. A man Zille names only as "Daniel" was pivotal to the discussions.

The former journo writes: "The agreement with Mamphela was that the money to make good her debts would be forthcoming [from Daniel] if she was willing to close down Agang."

Double-dealing, missed meetings and grandstanding saw the proposed alliance crash in flames.

The Lindiwe Mazibuko story features in the book, for the media made a meal of it. Zille expounds on it in full. She had been grooming the DA leader of the parliamentary caucus to assume the leadership mantle after she’d gained experience.

Zille’s dual role of DA leader and Western Cape premier had worked well until Mazibuko erected "a Berlin Wall between our offices. She wanted to create her own platform, which was entirely understandable. But it’s really difficult to have effective communication if there are two centres of power in a party," Zille says over coffee. Her two security women are so discreetly placed that nobody in the sunny restaurant garden would guess that Zille is a big shot.

The imperviousness of Mazibuko’s "wall" became even more apparent when Musi Maimane took over as DA leader in Parliament "and things returned to normal" immediately, Zille says.

When Zille stepped down as DA leader and Maimane was elected, "I became a follower and was happy and relieved to be in that role", she says.

But it’s her personal stories that are riveting. Sent to cover the laying down of arms by guerillas after the Lancaster House agreement was brokered for what was then Rhodesia, she inadvertently walked alone into hundreds of guerillas, lying so heavily camouflaged in the bush that she didn’t see them.

"A tall guy came walking towards me and I thought, ‘well, this is it’. But he just let his hand rest on my pen.

"I realised he wanted it, so I smiled, gave it to him and he smiled too," she writes.

An amusing example of Zille’s courage involves a mouse that ran up inside her jeans during the 2014 election campaign. Praying it wasn’t a scorpion, she continued, unflinchingly, to give media interviews.

She documents her battle with anorexia, which she developed after participating in a beauty parade in her first year at the University of Cape Town (UCT). "The boys bid various amounts of money for us. It was humiliating. I decided my legs were not suited to a mini and went on The Drinking Man’s Diet," she writes. Within months she was skeletal and her life endangered. "It took me a decade to recover fully."

Zille’s lack of self-confidence was clearly well masked because while she was at the Rand Daily Mail, a handsome American journalist, Matt Franjola, fell for her.

Their three-year romance ended just days before their New York wedding, when she called everything off.

"I didn’t want to leave SA," she says. "And yes, he was a babe magnet. Not a good idea to marry one."

She was immediately attracted to Maree, a UCT lecturer who gave away most of his salary to the poor, wore old and clown-like shoes, and didn’t produce a ring on their engagement. "He questioned why two rings were necessary when one would do," Zille says.

She describes Maree leaving her in labour with their first son to give his students a lecture.

"His sense of duty is as strong as mine," she says.

On another occasion, when she arrived home anxious to discuss her momentous decision to step down as DA leader, he responded, "Great. I’m off to church now."

Dismayed, she pointed out that there were implications to her decision.

"We’ll chat about them later," he said, rushing off.

Zille’s book, currently topping the country’s best-seller list, is balanced, direct and determined. Like her.

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