New face of South Africa's opposition

Helen Zille was chosen this month to lead the country's main opposition party. She faces the difficult task of winning over voters aligned with the dominant ANC.

Pity the politician who takes on South Africa's ruling party, the African National Congress (ANC), a party of liberation heroes like Nelson Mandela and sophisticated technocrats like President Thabo Mbeki.

In the 13 years since the end of apartheid, the ANC has not so much dominated the political scene as swallowed it whole. In the 2004 national elections, the ANC and its coalition partners won nearly 70 percent of the vote.

Enter Helen Zille, a liberal, white former journalist, mother of two, mayor of the gorgeous city of Cape Town, and now head of the Democratic Alliance (DA). The DA is the closest thing South Africa has to an opposition party, with 12.7 percent of the vote in the 2004 election.

Ms. Zille was chosen this month to succeed the combative Tony Leon, who headed the party for 14 years, but failed to win over many black voters. Black South Africans, who make up more than 80 percent of the population, overwhelmingly support the ANC.

The challenge will be for Zille's DA to do what the country's previous white-led parties haven't done, and that is to reach out to all South Africans, regardless of race. "What we need to do is show that we care about everybody, we demonstrate that it's not just the people of the same color that we care about deeply," said Zille in a recent phone interview from Cape Town. "We have the will to do that, and the ANC doesn't."

Even with a track record of improved services in Cape Town, and a fierce anticorruption ethos that earned her the nickname "Godzille," she knows she faces an uphill task.

"It's not going to be easy, I can be tarred and feathered with race," she says. But in a way, her job is really quite simple, she says. "It's defined by the Constitution: We provide basic services. I'm pro-economic growth, and so my policy allies with the unemployed," by creating new jobs.

Uniting a fractured opposition

In a way, Zille's greatest challenge will not be the almighty ANC, but keeping the fractious DA – a mixture of liberal, moderate, and deeply conservative whites, mixed-race "Coloureds" and Asians, and a scattering of black voters who are put off by the ANC's socialist ideology – together. At party conferences these various groups clash as much with each other as they do with the ANC at election time.

The difficulty, many political observers say, is to find a positive message that will unite this base, while reaching out to other South Africans who are starting to see the ANC's failure to live up to its promise.

"South African politics are not just about race, they are about identity, and thus everyone identifies with the ANC," says Tim Hughes, a senior researcher at the South African Institute for International Affairs in Cape Town. Demographics, with nearly 80 percent of South Africans voting along racial lines for the ANC, mean that time is working against the DA in the long run. "That means the Democratic Alliance is not going anywhere except backwards."

Capitalizing on ANC failures

But politics is not just about winning, says Mr. Hughes. It's about putting up a good enough fight to change policy at the national level. If Zille's DA reaches out beyond its normal white voting base to South Africans of other races who are growing disenchanted with one-party rule, it could still have a powerful effect.

"I've known Helen a long time," says Hughes. "She's smart enough to know that the DA has a diminishing vote, a diminishing influence. So at a minimum, the first step is not just to gather up the white vote, but to expand the support base between opposition parties.

"If her vote is not just 15 percent but up to 20 or 25 percent, then she'll project a more credible party," says Hughes. "Helen's position is, 'I did it in Cape Town, I think I can do it on a national level, too.' "

Running a city like Cape Town may not seem like such a big deal. With relatively peaceful race relations, dependable shipping and tourism industries, and a landscape often compared to San Francisco or Italy's Amalfi Coast, Cape Town is a cakewalk compared with the rugby-scrum of politics in a city like Johannesburg.

But Zille's achievements in Cape Town – improved social services and roads, reduced corruption and crime – have depended on the support of a shaky seven-party coalition.

ANC stalwarts have attempted several times to topple Zille's rule by splitting up her coalition, and now that Zille has a second job – as head of DA – some of her coalition allies are starting to grumble.

Can she win over black voters?

Zille's insistence on focusing on issues such as good governance and economic liberalism make her a darling of the South African media. But the larger question is whether a battle of ideas will actually work in a political culture defined by historic injustice, racial prejudice, and loyalty to one's own ethnic roots.

"Unless they want to be a minority party forever, they have to build an interracial coalition, because you don't govern South Africa with just 10 to 12 percent of the vote," says Achille Mbembe, a political scientist at Witswatersrand University in Johannesburg.

"The DA is plagued by the question of how to be white in South Africa without apartheid," says Mr. Mbembe. "If they don't come up with an answer to this question, they'll play the role of a white trade union, always complaining."

Zille admits that the changes she wants to see in South Africa will be a "long, slow haul," but she resists pessimism.

"Look, the ANC are being racial nationalists, and the temptation is very great to do that, because it's a common thing all over the world. That is the easiest, cheapest way to win support," she says.

The only answer is to gather people who agree on broad, central issues, and build a coalition for change, she adds. "It's hard to see how that can make a difference, but over time, it can."

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.
QR Code to New face of South Africa's opposition
Read this article in
QR Code to Subscription page
Start your subscription today