Helen Zille polarises opinions, no question. Like or loathe her, we can admire her courage and fortitude, and appreciate how she catalyses action. If we had more politicians like her — dynamic leaders who serve the public rather than squabble pusillanimously — we would be a more dynamic nation; it’s easy to imagine far superior outcomes in education, for example, with Zille as national minister with responsibility for this portfolio.

It’s worth remembering her stalwart contribution in resisting the apartheid government

True to form, and with a sense of traps laid and a breaking national semi-crisis, her book is full-blooded, no-nonsense and gladiatorial. Politicos seeking tales of enmity, intrigue, rivalry, and duplicity will not be disappointed. But she also reveals a mellow, humorous side, through a captivating family history and charming or poignant personal stories.

Ironically, her mother pleaded with her not to enter the dragon: “You are too sensitive to be in politics.” But Zille knew her own strength, and a career of fierce political contests are but minor scraps compared to her personal battle against life-threatening anorexia and her dangerous immersion within the anti-apartheid struggle.

Indeed, it’s unjust that her anti-apartheid credentials have been blown away in the whirlwind of today’s vacuous political post-truth. It’s worth remembering her stalwart contribution in resisting the apartheid government as a member of the Black Sash, the End Conscription Campaign and, most vitally, her 1970s legacy as the Rand Daily Mail investigative reporter who doggedly uncovered the tragedy and scandal of Steve Biko’s murder.

Her struggle experiences — some at huge personal and family risk — are conveyed relatively modestly. She explains the fork in the road where she felt her libertarian sensibilities were compromised, the point where the struggle gained momentum but lost its liberal soul: “I sensed that I did not fit comfortably anywhere” — a reference to the radicalisation of apartheid resistance at a time when Winnie Mandela was holding up her matches.

Rigorous intellectualism

With a nod to Coretta Scott King’s observation that “Freedom is never really won. You earn it and win it in every generation”, she fears the country is at another crossroads, and Zille foresees a bitter polarisation between liberal ideals and the forces of a new nationalism. Her prediction is that the ANC will be consumed in the divide, and the future fight’s battle lines will be drawn between a mainstream DA and the firebrand populism of the EFF.

Corralled together, her values, viewpoints and tenets represent a powerful plea for liberal principles to “build inclusive, open societies based on the foundation of constitutionalism” — a mantra throughout the latter chapters. Beyond passion, Zille’s brand of liberalism also incorporates an engaging logic and a rigorous intellectualism. She is crisply on point regarding burning issues — not in the superficially truncated manner of many politicians, but with a clear vision and well-researched understanding of subjects such as Black Lives Matter, critical race theory, requisite reform at institutions of higher learning, and economic transformation.

She realises her steadfastness on certain positions fuels her dogmatic Godzille persona. “You don’t have to turn everything into a principle,” her husband Johann suggests. She claims that she tries to follow his advice, but admits limited success, for which she is unapologetic — principles are her lodestar, and in politics these have to be defended vigilantly against compromise.

Mostly, Zille writes unassumingly about her political achievements, and spreads credit. But she is cockerel-proud of two achievements: overcoming Machiavellian internal rivalries and perfidious external forces during the 2000-2007 battle for the soul of the DA; and implementing a “lawfare” counter-strategy to resist the ANC’s moves against state institutions. Zille claims to have identified Jacob Zuma’s state-capture strategy long before this word entered our political lexicon, pointing out that the DA instituted 103 legal challenges to the ANC government in the years 2009-2016, which she believes is one of her party’s invaluable contributions to protecting constitutionalism and civil liberties.

Not Without a Fight is a fascinating portal into the lion’s den of SA’s politics, providing an articulate, cutting critique of political rivals and sounding a warning bell of the effects of venal governance. Forthright and crystal-clear, the book is a knockout read, leaving a residual sense that Zille has unfinished business. We can expect more fight yet.

Not Without a Fight: The Autobiography
Helen Zille, Penguin Random House

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