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Should I remain Premier or go to Parliament? Personal reflections on political advice


When I first stood as a candidate for public office in the 1999 general election, at the ripe middle-age of 48, my late dad advised me: “never complain, never explain”.

His advice was reinforced by Ryan Coetzee, the 26-year-old communications chief of the then Democratic Party, to whom I reported during the campaign. Ryan often warned his team against justifying our decisions: “In politics”, he said, “when you’re explaining, you’re losing”.


When I receive advice from intelligent, well-intentioned people, I consider it carefully, adopt the bits I consider valid -- and discard the rest.

During my years in politics, I have often found it is necessary to complain (for example to the Press Ombudsman about the media’s regular breaches of the Press Code).

And, occasionally, I also consider it necessary to explain.

As for the army of “political commentators”, who consider themselves equipped to offer loads of advice based on a scant understanding of complex situations, I take the liberty of passing on a piece of advice that has never failed me: Ipse se nihil scire id unum sciat. It comes from Plato via my school Latin teacher and it means: It’s important to know what you don’t know.

I’ve made my fair share of mistakes in politics, and I’ve learnt far more from them than from any “successes”. But looking back, the decisions that turned out to be the biggest mistakes were generally those most enthusiastically supported by the “commentariat” -- until they proved to be wrong. Then, somehow, said commentators always seem to have predicted the disaster from the start. Warren Buffett’s famous business advice applies equally in politics: the rearview mirror is always clearer than the windshield.

The difference between politicians and commentators getting it wrong, is that we have to face the consequences.

One of my biggest-ever mistakes in politics was to offer Mamphela Ramphele the DA’s Presidential candidacy in the recent election, after she approached me in December last year, desperate for a way out of the political dead-end she had created for herself. We all know how that interlude ended, but very few people know the truth about how it started or unfolded. For reasons that will one day be obvious, I cannot write about it now. I, as DA leader, must take responsibility for it, and I do. No “ifs, buts or maybe’s”.

Of all the people I consulted before making the move, I recall only four being strongly opposed to it: my DA colleague Athol Trollip, the academic and commentator R W Johnson, businessman Michiel le Roux, and Natie Kirsch -- who ironically, and totally erroneously, has been fingered in the media-constructed conspiracy as the person who forced the union. Nothing could be further from the truth. But, as I say, the truth must wait for my memoirs, if I ever get around to writing them.

Those who advised me against bringing Mamphela into the DA would now be perfectly justified in saying “I told you so”. But they don’t. Vindication is its own reward. If history proves you right, you don’t have to complain or explain. (That’s probably what my dad actually meant back in 1999.)

Predictably, the commentators who most encouraged the move, either directly or indirectly, were my strongest critics after the event.

Take Richard Calland, whose insights I generally find helpful.

In August last year, Calland celebrated “women’s month” by naming his “dream team” cabinet for South Africa.

At the top of his list was Mamphela Ramphele -- who Calland nominated for President. “I have no doubt that Ramphele would provide the clarity of vision and leadership that South Africa needs to restore her reputation in the world, while grasping the big nettles in the domestic arena,” Calland opined.

I suppose he never expected his advice to actually be put into practice. When we nominated Mamphela, just five months later, and things went horribly wrong, Calland wasted no time in describing our move as “bad judgement and bad politics”. To add insult to injury, he borrowed Gwede Mantashe’s offensive “rent-a-black” phrase, saying Ramphele was “fundamentally ill-suited to the particular demands of party politics”. Ja-Nee, as the profound Afrikaans saying goes.

Advice from Bill Clinton, one of the past century’s most savvy politicians, is always worth listening to. He famously said: the key question in politics is “compared to what?”

Realpolitik offers a limited number of options, and every decision has unintended consequences, mostly negative. The best choice in many situations is usually the “least bad”. The art of politics is working out which one that will be, because unintended consequences are, by definition, difficult to predict. I often wish I could act on the excellent advice of my school science teacher and compare the consequences of various options by conducting an experiment with “control groups” to weigh the impact of different “variables”. Thanks, Miss Foden, but the laws of science do not apply to politics, which is why the term “political science” is a complete misnomer.

If only I had been able to apply the scientific method to the Mamphela decision, I would have been able to set up a “control group” to assess the consequences of rejecting her approach for a political life-line. I am prepared to wager that the headlines would have been along the lines of: “Power-hungry Zille blocks Ramphele”. And the “analysis” would have slammed my hypocrisy for claiming to want to change the DA’s “white party” brand, while turning down a black person of unrivalled experience as a struggle hero, medical doctor, anthropologist, chief executive officer, author, business person, and world citizen.

Trying to apply the “scientific method” in retrospect, I still think the disaster of offering her our Presidential candidacy had fewer negative consequences for the DA than the disaster of rejecting her would have had. As bad as my decision was, it was probably the least worst. Which does not justify it. #JustSaying.

These meandering reflections have been occasioned by the fact that I am again being bombarded with advice to leave my job as Western Cape Premier and return to lead the DA in Parliament. It is advice I take seriously. And again, no outside commentator can weigh up all the complex factors I have to take into account.

Let’s start with the most obvious points. In the 2014 election, I was on both the national and provincial lists, as the DA’s Presidential candidate, and the Western Cape Premier candidate, respectively. Only 22% of South Africans voted for me to be President. Almost 60% of the Western Cape’s voters chose me for a second term as Premier. I had made these voters an offer by standing as a candidate, and they had accepted it through the ballot box. I felt an obligation to honour our contract. My name was thus removed from the national list.

And the DA cannot, in terms of the law, put my name back onto the national list for at least a year. So even if we now thought it best for me to return to Parliament I would technically be unable to do so. But even if I could, I am prepared to wager that the outcry from people lambasting me for “dishonouring” my electoral commitment, would drown out the critics who are castigating me for not leading the DA in the national Parliament. And there would be no shortage of critics accusing me of preventing the rise of new talent.

Some of my unsolicited advisers have told me that the DA has “proved the point” that we can govern properly, so there is no need for me to continue as Premier. People who have never been in government would never know how fragile a functional team is. It is true, we have worked excellently as a cabinet, but we have only just started to implement our plans and we still aim to achieve a lot together. And if the rest of SA also wants DA government, we have outstanding talent that can deliver it. They just have to vote us in.

All things considered, I think the decision to remain Premier is probably the least worst under present circumstances. I am sure that the 103-member caucus will elect a great leadership team that will combine deep experience with new blood and that we will work well together. My most important job for the remainder of my tenure as DA leader is to build a strong, vibrant succession pipeline of talented potential leaders (of all races and ages). That is what I have been doing since I was elected DA leader in 2007.

If my decision not to return to Parliament does not work for the DA, there is a way out. In a year’s time, we will assess the situation to see if it is working. If not, one possibility would be to swap with someone in Parliament, so that I can be on the national list and lead the DA in Parliament. But I totally disagree that the “two-centres-of-power” issue is a problem per se. It has worked well before and it can do so again. Indeed, having various platforms for different people helps to “showcase” the DA’s exceptional pool of talent.

Anyway, that is the decision we have taken for now. And most of my colleagues agree with it. I believe it will also turn out to the best in the circumstances, or the least worst, whichever way you choose to look at it.

Helen Zille

Last Updated on Monday, 26 May 2014 00:58  

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