South Africa is filled with personalities who have won prestigious awards for various achievements. Just think of Oscar winner Charlize Theron or Nobel laureates Nelson Mandela, Desmond Tutu, Sydney Brenner and Nadine Gordimer. Now the country can again count Helen Zille among that number.
Zille will receive the accolade at a ceremony on 26 September in Berlin, Germany. It includes an endowment of €10,000 (R97 000), which will go towards educating rabbinical students from South Africa at the Abraham Geiger College in Germany.
In 2008 Zille was unanimously named World Mayor, taking the award from 11 finalists selected from over 800 entrants.
Respected by public
Since taking the helm at the DA, the 60-year-old has garnered much respect from the public, even from opposition African National Congress (ANC) supporters.
Betty Fefe, a staunch ANC follower from the township of Duncan Village in East London, believes that Zille’s presence in the political arena indicates that women can make a difference.
She added that the DA leader understands all different types of people and their needs as well. “Before the [local] election, she was visiting our townships. Now we see her as a good person. In the townships they are saying that even though she is white, she knows how to talk to people,” said Fefe.
Those within the DA hold their leader in high esteem. DA councillor Dinesh Vallabh’s first encounter with Zille left him admiring her energy, her logical thinking, and the way she connects with people from every walk of life.
He believes that Zille leads with integrity and a dynamism that is natural to her.
Equally impressive, he said, was her ability to remember names. “She has the memory of an elephant,” he quipped.
Johannesburg-based journalist Priya Pitamber said that the Western Cape premier comes across as a strong woman who is able to speak her mind.
In an online question and answer session on World Mayor.com, Zille said the lessons learnt during her years as a political correspondent had helped her become an astute politician. She said she was able to apply those skills to the many challenges she faced in her new career.
Pitamber, however, has mixed feelings about journalists who become politicians. “I hope she still has a journalist’s ideal of changing the world for the better, and hopefully she is trying to do that,” she said.
If Zille has earned respect as a politician, then she has certainly gained fame for her recent moves on stage. In the months leading up to the 2011 local election, South Africans were bombarded by pictures and videos of Zille performing a dance routine dubbed the “ballot boogie” by a popular local magazine.
The dance was used to connect with the public during the DA’s campaign. When she was criticised for it, Zille simply said: “Dancing is part of South Africa’s political culture. I love dancing, even though I am no ‘twinkle toes’. But who cares? The point is to move and enjoy yourself and not to feel inhibited.”
Courage and determination
According to the South African Union for Progressive Judaism, a person who contributes to pluralism through openness, courage, tolerance and freedom of thought is considered worthy of the Geiger Award. This says much about Zille herself.
Johannesburg-born Zille is of German descent. Her parents fled the country in the 1930s when they were persecuted because of their Jewish roots. Her maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother were Jewish.
Before her foray into politics, Zille worked as a journalist during the apartheid era at the Rand Daily Mail, an influential liberal newspaper. She was instrumental in revealing the brutal killing of Steve Biko while he was imprisoned in Pretoria in 1977.
After involving herself in NGO work, she joined the DA, known then as the Democratic Party, in the mid-1990s.
Zille served as a Member of the Executive Council for education and then became leader of the opposition in the Western Cape’s provincial legislature, before being elected as a Member of Parliament in 2004, a position she held for two years. In the 2006 municipal election, Zille and the DA snatched a majority vote in the Mother City, which made her mayor.
During her tenure, Zille rid the council of corruption and bad debt by meticulously scouring through contracts approved by the previous administration. These efforts led to her nomination as World Mayor in 2008.
When the DA won the government of the Western Cape in the 2009 general election, she said: “If we can prove our ability to govern in the Western Cape as we did in Cape Town, then it would be a milestone for our democracy.”
Since then, the Western Cape has become one of the more progressive provinces in the country.
About the Abraham Geiger Award
The man after whom the award is named was a philosopher and renowned thinker of liberal Judaism during the 19th century.
The award was created in 2000 by the Abraham Geiger College at the University of Potsdam to honour those who have achieved much in their fields of expertise while following three freedoms Geiger held in high regard. These were; the freedom of conscience and belief, academic freedom, and freedom of expression for all human beings.
Previous winners include Catholic priest Hans Küng, Prince Hassan bin Talal of Jordan, Cardinal Karl Lehmann, German-French sociologist Alfred Grosser, Emil Fackenheim, and the scholar Susannah Heschel.