Helen Zille is in a hurry. As the newly elected head of South Africa's largest and most influential opposition party and also the mayor of Cape Town, she spent one recent day catching up with hundreds of cell phone messages, meeting with a few dozen worried parliamentarians from her caucus and welcoming President Thabo Mbeki for a ceremony—all while trying to look composed for the cameras of a television crew that had been following her since 4 o'clock that morning. But Zille’s real scramble is her work to recast South African politics.
When an American delegation from the Harvard Black Law Students Association visited her offices a few weeks ago, Zille challenged them. "Why aren't you just the law society?" she asked. "If people from the most advantageous position in the world are still defining themselves by race, it shows how far we have to go in South Africa." Zille admits she was "depressed" by the encounter. "If we decide that race is the automatic override then we can't have a democracy in South Africa."
The election of Zille, who is white, as the leader of the liberal Democratic Alliance (DA) comes at a key moment in South African politics. In November, the powerful ruling African National Congress (ANC) party will choose a successor to Mbeki. And while Zille's party has no chance now—some would say ever—of winning power from the government, her new spot as leader raises questions about what role an opposition party can have in South Africa today. The ANC has been buffeted by allegations of high-level cronyism and incompetence, and charges that it is neglecting the poorest and most desperate of its constituents. These frustrations are linked in no small part to the failure of the government to react effectively to problems such as South Africa's AIDS epidemic and the decline of neighboring Zimbabwe. And although the ANC’s history as Mandela’s party of liberation has given it an overwhelming and seemingly unassailable grip on power, the internal squabbling is furthering existing divisions inside the party.
That's where the opposition comes in, says Colin Eglin, a former leader of the onetime Progressive Party, whose members eventually formed the core ranks of the DA. "Let's say there has been a liberation in a racial sense, that doesn't mean that democracy [in South Africa] is entirely secure," he says. Eglin dismisses the suggestion that the party may fare better at the polls if it had chosen a black leader over a white. “I don't think the blackness is a real issue,” he says. “I think the important relationship is what she can do for the community."
Zille herself says she fears that South Africa is already succumbing to what she calls "the criminalization of the state," and says the only way out is to deracialize politics. For Zille and her opposition followers, that means staking out a firm position as a voice of conscience. Various ANC officials have criticized Zille over the years, saying that it is naïve to think that race can be so easily dismissed in a country still trying to recover from the oppressive legacy of legalized racial discrimination that was apartheid. Adam Habib, a political scientist at the Human Research Council in Johannesburg, believes much more has to happen. "So long as elites feel safe, there is no incentive for them to become responsive to citizens, so they become responsible to other stakeholders instead. The only leverage that citizens have is to make violence, or the vote." Habib and others believe that Zille's challenge is to redefine the opposition in such a way that it can begin to peel much larger numbers of black voters—the vast majority of the population—away from the ANC. That would require developing social programs that answer more directly to the needs of the poor, and exploiting other areas where the ANC has fallen short.
Zille also faces challenges within her own party. The Democratic Alliance is a direct descendant of the Progressive Party, the white liberal group that tried to curb the excesses of the Afrikaner minority government during the decades when the African National Congress was banned and its leaders jailed or exiled. But liberals tend to be derided as ineffectual in Africa’s harsh political arena, and the DA has struggled to gain traction—and votes—in the new South Africa. The party’s previous leader, a brash, sometimes polarizing figure named Tony Leon, tried to broaden its appeal by making common cause with many former Afrikaner nationalists—an unlikely move given the party's heritage, but one that helped keep a viable opposition alive at a time when it could easily have disappeared altogether. Now the 56-year-old Zille, who is in the unique position of running the only major South African city not controlled by the ANC, faces the challenge of trying to broaden the appeal of the opposition while at the same time solidifying an uneasy base of support. "I don't recall any other time in post-apartheid politics where there has been so much expectation around the opposition," says Zwelethu Jolobe, a political scientist at the University of Cape Town. "Race is not an issue with her; it has to do more with politics."
Zille, an attractive, precise woman who switches easily and frequently between Afrikaans, English and Xhosa, grew up in a German-speaking household and married an academic. Before entering politics she worked as an investigative journalist. She frequently argues that all South Africans should try to learn one or another of the country's 11 official languages. When she was elected to the DA's top spot, critics argued that her appointment would only worsen race relations. But Joe Seremane, a longtime anti-apartheid activist who spent six years on Robben Island with Nelson Mandela, and was beaten 72 to 6 percent by Zille for the top job, has now closed ranks behind her and says he is confident that she is the right person for the job. "We need to show that race is not at the core of our political process," Seremane says. "If you say you're going to deracialize the process, you have to do it, but it's not like a tsunami, it's not going to happen overnight." More importantly, adds Eglin, he believes Zille is simply the most qualified person to lead the South African opposition into new territory. He argues that Zille's background as an outspoken champion of black rights during apartheid sets her apart as a leader, and burnishes her credentials as a voice for liberal opposition. "She has a very strong approach," says Eglin. "It doesn't reflect the ANC or the National Party [that imposed apartheid], neither of which were liberal or democratic. Her job is to help see that the core principles of the constitution become entrenched in the nation."
The challenges for Zille—and for South Africa—are enormous. In addition to the HIV/AIDS pandemic, spiraling crime statistics and a widening gap between rich and poor are all taking their toll. Zille believes that part of her job now is to do everything she can to hold the ANC accountable for the promises it has made to fix those problems. Whether she can is a different question. If her record as mayor of Cape Town is anything to go by, there are signs to be optimistic. Amid rumors that the site of the 2010 World Cup might be moved to another country because of fears that South Africa cannot be ready in time, Zille has fought back hard. She insists that preparations for the World Cup "are on track." The rest of her time—at least her political time—is spent on making her party relevant. "Our immediate goal is to keep the opposition alive," she said recently. “Our greatest risk is falling between the cracks. Our challenge is convincing everyone that nonracialism is the answer.” Is that possible?” Zille hopes so. “It's worth,” she says, “devoting the rest of my life to the effort."