Profile: Helen Zille
Leader of South Africa's opposition party and Cape Town mayor challenges ruling ANC.
Last Modified: 16 Apr 2009 17:12 GMT

The Democratic Alliance is trying to make inroads in provinces dominated by the ruling ANC [EPA]

On the campaign trail and in political speeches, Helen Zille, leader of the Democratic Alliance, South Africa's opposition party, has been campaigning on an anti-cronyism ticket.

"This election is a contest between two political philosophies, each of which will take our country in a fundamentally different direction," she says. 

"These diametrically opposing options can be described, in summary, as the open, opportunity-driven society for all versus the closed, crony society for some."
Her remarks about a "closed, crony society" are in reference to some members of the governing African National Congress (ANC), who have been dogged by allegations of corruption and cronyism.

Zille, who has been described as "forceful" and "dynamic" by the Western media, is the mayor of Cape Town and the only woman leading a major political party in South Africa.

Her party, formerly known as the Democratic party, was formed in 2000 and contested its first election in 2004, winning 12 per cent of the vote.

'Opportunities for all'

The party's vision for South Africa reflects the message that has dominated Zille's election campaign: "Open opportunity society for all." 

Zille worked as a journalist before she entered politics, reporting for the Rand Daily Mail, where she covered the death of Steve Biko, the black consciousness activist.

Zille's campaign slogan has stressed 'opportunity-driven society' for all [EPA]

In 1977, she was able to prove that Biko had been tortured to death - contrary to the official records stating that he had died of natural causes.

Zille, 58, subsequently became involved in civil societies including the Open Society Foundation, The Independent Media Diversity Trust and the Black Sash.

She also campaigned against vigilantism and repression in the townships of the Western Cape.

As a member of the Democratic party, Zille worked on the party's education policy and was asked to stand as a candidate for the Western Cape legislature.

She was elected to the provincial parliament in 1999 and served as minister of education in the Western Cape province for two and a half years.

During this period, she made 500 visits to schools in a campaign that sought to encourage discipline among teachers and improve teaching conditions.

She became leader of the opposition in the Western Cape legislature in 2001 and continued in this position until she was elected a member of the national parliament in 2004.

As an MP, Zille served on the Democratic Alliance's education committee and also served as the party's national spokeswoman. Her constituency included Langa, Gugulethu and Khayelitsha.

World mayor award

Zille resigned from parliament after she was elected mayor of Cape Town on March 15, 2006. Her mayoral achievements have won her kudos and awards, including World Mayor 2008.

She assumed leadership of the alliance on May 6, 2007, at the party's Federal Congress in Johannesburg.

Since then, Zille has turned the heat on the governing ANC, but also praised some of its officials.

When Thabo Mbeki, the former president, stepped down she praised his dignified resignation speech, saying he demonstrated respect for a court judgment which led to him leaving office.

"This contrasts sharply with the response of Jacob Zuma and his followers, who only respect court judgments that are in their favour, and vilify and defy the judiciary if they are not," Zille said at the time.

But she criticised Mbeki for a "chequered legacy", pointing to his assertion, while in office, that HIV did not lead to Aids. He was subsequently blamed for the delay in rolling out anti-retroviral drugs which many say cost thousands of lives in South Africa.

On Mbeki's policy of non-interference in Zimbabwe, Zille has said: "He undermined his own vision of an African renaissance by siding with despots on the continent."

Al Jazeera
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