JOHANNESBURG, Apr 25 – South Africa’s fiery opposition leader Helen Zille has tackled the ruling African National Congress head on since taking the reins of the main opposition party in 2007.
Under her leadership, the Democratic Alliance (DA) scored the only victory against the ANC in this week’s general elections by winning a majority in the provincial polls in the Western Cape.
She is now set to become the leader of the province that includes Cape Town, bolstering her standing as she pushes to expand the DA’s ranks and overcome its image as a party for whites and the elite.
The diminutive blonde fought tooth and nail to become mayor of Cape Town in 2006, the only city not governed by the ANC, in a fragile seven-party coalition government, despite efforts by the ruling party to oust her.
Her greatest challenge as leader of the party has been battling to overcome voting patterns based on racial identity, especially to convince black voters that a white woman has their interests at heart.
"It’s going to take a long time before they believe that a white person can really act in their best interests and before they really trust that our commitment is to do that," Zille said in an interview with AFP.
Speaking fluent Xhosa, and dancing at rallies in up to three cities a day during an exhaustive election capmaign, Zille has increased her party’s support from 12.8 percent in the 2004 elections to 16.7 percent this week, while fighting off competition from a breakaway party of ANC dissidents.
Nicknamed by her critics as Godzilla, the 58-year-old campaigned against ANC chief Jacob Zuma under the theme "Stop Zuma", promising to fight crime and corruption.
She joined the DA in the 1990s when it was still known as the Democratic Party (DP) and was elected to parliament in 2004.
Her rise to prominence started when she was appointed junior education minister for the Western Cape in 1999, a position she held until 2001.
Before joining politics, Zille worked as a political journalist for one of apartheid South Africa’s liberal newspapers.
She achieved fame for exposing the details of the police-custody death of Black Consciousness leader Steve Biko in 1977.