Helen Zille

Helen Zille (Otta Helene Zille) is a South African politician, Premier of the Western Cape (WC) province, former journalist and anti-apartheid activist. She is the leader of the official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA). She was one of the journalists who exposed the truth behind the death of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko while working for the Rand Daily Mail in the late 1970s.

Born Otta Helene Zille
March 09, 1951
Hillbrow, Johannesburg
South Africa
Occupation Politician
Nationality South African
Political Party DA
Spouse Johann Maree
Children Paul Maree
Thomas Maree
Education Wits University
Religion Uniting Presbyterian

Leader of the Democratic Alliance

May 6, 2007 – May 10, 2015
Preceded By Tony Leon
Succeeded By Mmusi Maimane

Premier of the Western Cape

May 6, 2009 – to date
Preceded By Lynne Brown

Mayor of Cape Town

March 15, 2006 – April 30, 2009
Preceded By Nomaindia Mfeketo
Succeeded By Dan Plato

Member of the National Assembly

2004 – 2006

Member of Provincial Parliament (WC)

1999 – 2004

Helen Zille was born Otta Helene Zille in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, then Transvaal Province of the Union of South Africa now Gauteng province of the Republic of South Africa.

She is the eldest child of parents who left Germany separately to avoid Nazi persecution.

Helen Zille went to St Mary’s School, Waverley in Johannesburg and later attended the University of the Witwatersrand (Wits University), where she obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree.

Her mother was a volunteer with the Black Sash Advice Office. Her father’s uncle was the artist Heinrich Zille.



In 1974 Helen Zille began began her career as a political correspondent for the Rand Daily Mail.

In September 1977 J.T. Kruger, Minister of Justice and the Police at the time, announced that anti-apartheid activist Steve Biko had died in prison as the result of an extended hunger strike.

Helen Zille and her editor Allister Sparks were convinced Kruger’s story was a cover-up, she later obtained concrete proof of this after tracking down and interviewing various doctors involved in the case.

The lead story on the Rand Daily Mail headlined “No sign of hunger strike – Biko doctors”, sent shock-waves through South Africa, J.T. Kruger immediately threatened to ban the paper, and Zille received death threats.

At the quasi-judicial Press Council Helen Zille and her editor Allister Sparks were represented by leading defence lawyer Sydney Kentridge.

The two was found guilty of “tendentious reporting”, and the paper was forced to issue a “correction”. Sydney Kentridge later helped confirm the accuracy of Zille’s account when he represented the Biko family at the inquest into his death. That inquest found Biko’s death had been the result of a serious head injury, but failed to find any individual responsible.

Helen Zille resigned from the Rand Daily Mail along with editor Allister Sparks, after the paper’s owner, Anglo American, demanded that Sparks tone down the paper’s equal rights rhetoric.

In 1985 the Rand Daily Mail was forced to close eighty-three years after it was founded due to financial losses.


Anti-Apartheid Activism

In the 1980s Helen Zille served on the regional and national executives of the Black Sash movement. She was also vice-chair of the End Conscription Campaign in the Western Cape. During this time she was arrested for being in a “group area” without a permit, and received a suspended prison sentence.

In 1986 during the State of Emergency Helen Zille and her husband later offered their home as a safe house for political activists and she was temporarily forced into hiding with their two-year-old son. Helen Zille knew and was mentored by anti-apartheid figurehead Harry Schwarz since she was a child.

She was actively involved in the South Africa Beyond Apartheid Project and the Cape Town Peace Committee. She later gathered evidence for the Goldstone Commission which investigated attempts to destabilize the Western Cape before the elections in 1994.


Education Policy

In 1989 Helen Zille formed a public policy consultancy. In 1993 she was offered the position of Director of Development and Public Affairs at the University of Cape Town. During this time Zille also chaired the governing body of Grove Primary School.

Helen Zille was invited by the then Democratic Party to write a draft policy for Education in the Western Cape.

In 1999 she became a Member of the Western Cape Provincial Legislature, and was appointed MEC for Education.

In 200 the Democratic Party merged with the New National Party and the Federal Alliance to form the Democratic Alliance (DA)

In 2004 Helen Zille became a Member of Parliament with the Democratic Alliance (DA). Within the DA she rose to the level of deputy federal chairperson and served as national party spokesperson and spokesperson for education.


Mayor of Cape Town

In the 2006 municipal elections the DA won 42% of the vote ahead of the African National Congress (ANC). The Democratic Alliance obtained the support of several smaller parties, as a result, on 15 March 2006 Helen Zille was elected mayor by 106 votes to 103.

After assuming office, Zille’s multi-party government decided to revoke the appointment of the Cape Town City Manager, Wallace Mgoqi, whose term of appointment had been controversially extended by the outgoing ANC executive mayor, Nomaindia Mfeketo.

Helen Zille’s decision was upheld by the High Court which ruled that the extension of Mgoqi’s appointment by the previous mayor had been unlawful.

In September 2006 Richard Dyantyi, the provincial ANC MEC, announced he planned to replace the city’s political system. Dyantyi wanted to impose an executive committee system, changing the mayoral committee system. The move would have resulted in Zille being stripped of her executive mayoral powers and her power considerably reduced.

Under the proposed policy, the winning party would not be able to assign every one of the ten seats, rather these would be allocated on a proportional representation basis. The matter was later resolved, with Richard Dyantyi and Helen  Zille settling on the terms of retaining the current mayoral system whilst the ANC was provided with two additional sub-committees in areas of the city controlled by the ANC.

While mayor of Cape Town, Helen Zille’s commitments as mayor included Cape Town’s role as a designated host city for the 2010 World Fifa Cup, as well as the construction and financing of the Cape Town Stadium, which hosted 8 Fifa World Cup football matches in 2010.

As a Mayor of Cape Town Helen Zille has been credited with numerous successes of the city and the province including rapid economic growth and development in the City of Cape Town, cutting the city’s debt by nearly R1 billion, 90% crime decline in the city’s CBD over a period of ten years (which she attributed to collaboration between the police service, metro police and the Cape Town Partnership).

Helen Zille claimed that her municipality’s efforts to reform housing lists and improve verification processes also allowed housing delivery to be increased from 3000 units per annum under the ANC, to 7000 units per annum between 2006 and 2008 under her administration as mayor.

In April 2008 she was asked to address the United Nations (UN) in New York on population and development, offering her experience and lessons as mayor of Cape Town.


World Mayor of the Year

In October 2008 Helen Zille won the 2008 World Mayor of the Year. She was nominated as one of 820 world mayors. There was controversy when the ruling ANC used its majority in the National Assembly to block a motion by the Democratic Alliance acknowledging Zille’s achievement in winning the 2008 World Mayor award.


Leader of the DA

On March 15, 2007 Helen Zille declared herself a candidate to succeed Tony Leon, outgoing leader of the Democratic Alliance.

On May 6, 2007 she was elected by a large majority as the new leader of the Democratic Alliance ahead of main rival Athol Trollip.

As the leader of the Democratic Alliance, Helen Zille has challenged the African National Congress government on a number of issues.

In July 2007 when crime statistics were released, Zille accused the government of rewarding criminals by placing individuals convicted of serious crimes high up on their national parliamentary lists and went to say that the DA would reinstate child protection units, the South African Narcotics Bureau and the Scorpions unit, all of which have been disbanded.

In August 2008 Helen Zille announced proposals to boost the size of the police force to 250 000, employ an additional 30 000 detectives, improve detention programmes and use of information technology, and radically overhaul the justice system. She also said the party’s comprehensive new crime plan would include provisions for a Victims of Crime Fund.

Helen Zille warned against the controversial National Health Amendment Bill, legislation allowing greater state intervention in private health care. She has warned that the state will destroy the system that is rated fifth best of its kind in the world. Helen Zille outlined the possibility that the Bill could drive away thousands of skilled medical professionals, Together with  the Democratic Alliance, she proposed an alternative health plan, for the privatization of state healthcare.

Helen Zille has also frequently questioned judicial independence in South Africa, in light of the alleged behavior of the Cape judge president John Hlophe in trying to influence the Constitutional Court judges to rule in favour of ANC president Jacob Zuma. She also cited racism directed towards those in the judiciary, and has criticised the perceived double standards vocally, she was quoted saying “when it comes to black judges, the ANC’s subtext is different. There is an exception that, as beneficiaries of transformation, black judges will put the ANC first. If they do not, they risk provoking the ire of the party leadership”. Commenting on Cape judge president John Hlophe ” [He] is the judge who is ‘in consonance’ with the ruling party. He behaves like an ANC deployee. He is tainted by shady dealings and he is not afraid to play the race card when he needs to.”

Helen Zille has publicly denounced the Zimbabwean regime, calling for former-President Thabo Mbeki to abandon his ‘quiet diplomacy’ policy and take a tougher stance towards the president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe. She has called for the South African president to publicly acknowledge that the Mugabe regime in Zimbabwe is illegal and illegitimate; to sever all formal diplomatic ties with Zimbabwe and withdraw all diplomatic representatives; to impose smart sanctions on the Zanu-PF elite, including travel bans to South Africa and the freezing of all South African assets linked to Mugabe and Zanu-PF; and to lobby for the suspension of Zimbabwe from the United Nations (UN), the African Union (AU) and the South African Development Community (SADC).

In June 2008 Helen Zille challenged the president of the ANC and the 2009 presidential candidate, Jacob Zuma to a public debate on ten key issues such as the arms deal, disbanding of the Scorpions, the situation in Zimbabwe, HIV/Aids and labour legislation. Jacob Zuma has declined to participate and Zille has since requested a public debate again.

On Sunday April 12, 2015 Helen Zille announced that he would not be available for re-election at the Democratic Alliance’s Federal Congress, effectively concluding his tenure as the leader of that party.

“I have had to decide whether or not to stand for another term as leader at this year’s Federal Congress on 9 May,” Helen Zille said at the press conference held on Sunday.

“From the start, I resolved that the outer limit of my term as party leader would be ten years, not because the party’s constitution prescribes this but because I believe every political party needs renewal and fresh blood after a decade, no matter how well the incumbent team has performed,” she told the media.

“This decision has, paradoxically, been a long time coming  —  but when the time was right, it was taken quickly, even suddenly.  On Thursday last week, I took a firm decision that I would not stand for re-election as leader next month,” Helen Zille said.

On May 10, 2015 Helen Zille was official succeeded by Mmusi Maimane at the Federal Congress of the Democratic Alliance held in Nelson Mandela Bay.


Campaign Against Alcohol and Drug Abuse

On September 9, 2007 eight members of a group called the People’s Anti-Drug and Liquor Action Committee (PADLAC) were arrested outside the Mitchell’s Plain police station. Zille was then arrested when she visited the police station to investigate. The group had been distributing pamphlets in the campaign against the abuse of alcohol and drugs in Cape Town. Police have alleged that she supports vigilante groups opposed to drug abuse. She appeared in the Mitchell’s Plain Magistrates Court later that week for contravening the Regulation of Gatherings Act. Zille was expected to sue the Minister of Police for wrongful arrest.

On September 11, 2007 Helen Zille along with ten persons who had been arrested with her appeared briefly before the Mitchell’s Plain Magistrates Court.

On September 30, 2007 it was reported that senior intelligence sources, who were unhappy with the ANC’s plans to subvert state institutions to do ANC bidding, had leaked information to Zille that operatives with weapons were infiltrating PADLAC with the ultimate objective of bringing down the leader of the opposition.

On October 23, 2007 Helen Zille was acquitted of all charges brought before the Mitchell’s Plain Magistrates Court on the grounds that the prosecution’s case against her and nine other defendants did not stand a chance of succeeding. She has reiterated her intention to sue the South African Police Services (SAPS) branch in the Western Cape for wrongful arrest.

On March 8, 2008 Helen Zille took her anti-drugs campaign to Johannesburg, leading a protest march. Marchers wore DA t-shirts, bearing the message ‘No to drugs and save our children’.


Premier of the Western Cape

In 2009 Helen Zille was selected as candidate for Premier of the Western Cape. Following that year’s general election, the Democratic Alliance won 51.23% of the province’s vote and became premier.

Shortly after securing the Premiership of the Western Cape, Zille mentioned that her party’s preparations for the 2011 local government elections would begin immediately. Following its success in Cape Town, the Democratic Alliance had aimed to lead a multi-party coalition to victory in other cities in the country, including Pretoria, Johannesburg, Port Elizabeth and Ekurhuleni.

In the 2014 General Election the Democratic Alliance increased its dominance in the Western Cape to 59.38% and  secured 22.23% of the national vote up from 16.66% of the 2009 General Election.

On May 26, 2014 Helen Zille was sworn in for her second term as premier of the Western Cape.



During her time in the Democratic Alliance front-line Helen Zille has attracted a lot of controversy.

  • HIV

On November 9, 2011 the Cape Argus reported that, while addressing a wellness summit hosted by the Western Cape Health department, Helen Zille had called for irresponsible men who refused to use condoms and had multiple sexual partners, to be charged with attempted murder, and for Government to shift its focus from the treatment to the prevention of diseases. Some AIDS activists warned against such a move, arguing that this would provide an incentive for people not to get tested for HIV, and called Zille’s remarks “careless and misleading.”

  • Jacob Zuma

In May 2009 Helen Zille wrote a letter to the Cape Argus newspaper that was accidentally copied by her spokesperson to the Sowetan newspaper.

In that letter, responding to criticism from gender lobby groups and the ANC over her all-male provincial cabinet, Helen Zille stated in the letter that the ANC had never even been led by a woman, and that its leaders set bad examples on gender issues.

Jacob Zuma + Helen ZilleShe cited South African President Jacob Zuma‘s “deeply sexist views”, accused him of being a “womanizer”, and condemned him for putting “all his wives at risk of contracting HIV” by having unprotected sex with an HIV positive woman. Jacob Zuma, a polygamist, admitted in his rape trial that he had known that the woman with whom he had had sex was HIV positive.

Helen Zille’s condemnation of Jacob Zuma‘s behavior was then used by the Sowetan as the basis of a front page story entitled “Zuma an AIDS risk”. The paper stated that Zille had “launched an extraordinary new attack” on Zuma. This heralded a wave of attacks on Zille from both the ANC and a number of its left-wing alliance partners. The ANC Youth League of Julius Malema claimed Helen Zille was racist, and that her all-male cabinet consisted of “boyfriends and concubines so that she can continue to sleep around with them”. The claim, made without substantiation, drew the ire of the DA, who are in the process of consulting their lawyers over a possible defamation suit.

The Umkhonto we Sizwe Military Veterans Association restated the Youth League’s sex claims, and warned it would launch “a political programme aimed at rendering the Western Cape ungovernable”. The ANC also criticised Zille, but distanced itself from the remarks of its Youth League, stating that they were “deeply embarrassing”.

In response, Helen Zille claimed that the Sowetan and other publications had manufactured the row, and given off the impression that both sides had been spoiling for a fight, even though she had done nothing more than write a factual letter to a newspaper. She also claimed that the whole row exemplified South Africa’s warped approach to gender issues.

  • Land

In May 2009 Helen Zille accused the African National Congress of asset stripping. She related to the transfer of 1 000 hectares of provincial land in the Western Cape to a national body. The transfer was signed off by the former premier Lynne Brown on 21 April 2009, the day before the national elections.

Helen Zille alleged that the deal was done “secretly, in bad faith and with an ulterior motive”. The ANC responded by claiming that the land deal had been publicly tabled in Parliament several times over the years and there was nothing sinister about it.

She later said that she would call for a review and for the agreement to be rescinded and would lodge a dispute at an intergovernmental relations meeting, however, the matter never got that far.

In January 2010 Tokyo Sexwale, the ANC’s Minister of Human Settlements, agreed to return the land to the province before the matter could be taken to court.

  • Lindiwe Mazibuko

In 2009 following the general election of that year, the DA retained it’s official opposition status, Lindiwe Mazibuko appeared third on the KwaZulu-Natal list, thus qualifying for a seat in Parliament.

She was subsequently appointed as the DA’s Shadow Deputy Minister of Communications, and later succeeded Donald Lee as the party’s National Spokesperson.

Helen Zille +Lindiwe MazibukoOn October 27, 2011 Lindiwe Mazibuko was was elected the new DA parliamentary leader beating incumbent Athol Trollip amid reports that she was Helen Zille’s preferred candidate having previously labeled her “star performer”. Zille had also campaigned for Mazibuko to be elected DA parliamentary leader.

On May 11, 2014 Lindiwe Mazibuko resigned from her position as DA Parliamentary Leader to study at Harvard University in the United States for a year. She was later succeeded by Mmusi Maimane.

On May 18, 2014 the Sunday Times reported that Helen Zille told the party’s federal executive meeting in Johannesburg on Friday that she had opposed Lindiwe Mazibuko’s candidature as parliamentary leader against Eastern Cape leader Athol Trollip but, she had supported Lindiwe Mazibuko once her candidature had been declared because she could not run the risk of a black candidate losing. Zille told the meeting she “made” Lindiwe Mazibuko and went on to attack her record as parliamentary leader, claiming she “saved” her several times.

Helen Zille disputed the Sunday Times’ report of what transpired in the DA’s Federal Executive (Fedex). She conceded that she had worked very hard to promote Lindiwe Mazibuko’s career within the DA but never claimed to have “made” her, “saved” her and never asserted that she would be “nothing without me”.

  • Mamphela Ramphele

On January 28, 2014 Mamphela Ramphele accepted an invitation from the Democratic Alliance to stand as their presidential candidate in the 2014 general election.

Helen-Zille+Mamphele-RapheleMamphela Ramphele’s move to join forces with Helen Zille’s Democratic Alliance was widely viewed as the sign that her newly founded Agang SA was failing.

On January 31, 2014 she issued a statement saying that she would not take up Democratic Alliance party membership and would remain the leader of Agang South Africa, resulting in confusion.

On February 2, 2014 Helen Zille stated that Ramphele had reneged on her agreement to stand as the Democratic Alliance’s presidential candidate.

Mamphela Ramphele subsequently apologised for the reversal of her decision, saying that the timing was not right as the reaction to it had shown people were unable to overcome race-based party politics.

Their failed merger played out in the media with Helen Zille quoted saying “I didn’t want a friend’s career to end in ignominy and with Agang it was going to end up in complete failure and I just wanted to rescue her from that. Mamphela has massive debts and she had also realised that being in politics was not as easy as she thought it would be, which is why she needed a lifeline”.


Personal Life

In 1982 Helen Zille married Professor Johann Maree, and they have two sons, Paul Maree (born in 1984) and Thomas Maree (1989). She is a member of the Rondebosch United Church in Cape Town.