Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Premier Helen Zille

Above: Helen Zille (in the cobalt-blue jacket) arrives at Cape Town International airport from the Johannesburg operations centre during the 2009 South African elections.

Yesterday Helen Zille, leader of the DA (Democratic Alliance), former mayor of Cape Town, World Mayor Of The Year 2008, was sworn in as the Western Cape province's latest premier.

A few weeks ago, two days after we all cast our votes in South Africa's general election and two days before the final results were announced, I unknowingly arrived back in Cape Town from a press function in Johannesburg at the same time as Helen Zille had also flown back to the city from the election operations in Johannesburg. (As far as I know we were not on the same plane - I read somewhere that she was on an executive jet.)

As I walked past the bag-collection area at the airport I could hear an overwhelming amount of singing and chanting coming from the domestic-arrivals reception area of the airport and as I rounded the corner I walked in to a media throng on one side and a massive DA supper base on the other. Realising what was up I grabbed my cameras and started taking photos and video. The supporters were holding up signs saying "Premier Helen Zille", even though at that stage it was unclear as to whether her party had won the election in the Western Cape (for days the results drifted around the 49% to 51% marks) but in the minds of these supporters she had won.

The energy was electric and everyone at the airport got caught up in it. The crowd erupted when Helen walked out a few minutes later and the press began to swarm around her, taking photos from all angles. Helen acknowledged her supporters and, even though she was surrounded by security personnel, she moved as close as she could get to the supporters a few times so that they could shake her hand and, well, honestly - a lot of them were a lot more grabby than that. I thought it was quite cool of her to allow herself almost to be mauled by the supporters, who were so excited to see her and at the DA's imminent victory.

Above: The press swarms around Helen Zille (she's buried somewhere in the middle there).

I don't agree with the stances the DA takes on a number of issues but there's no denying that the party actively stands against corruption and ineptitude and has done the best job of running the city of Cape Town since South Africa became a democracy in 1994. If the party can translate those skills into running the Western Cape province... well I can't complain - we can quibble about issues when our democracy has become more mature and service delivery, health, education, and crime aren't such huge problems that urgently need to be addressed.

This year's election was the most exciting one we've had since the first democratic elections in 1994. There was a buzz in the air for a few days and for a while, while we voted and then waited for the results, everyone was equal and the problems and issues that plague us on a daily basis seemed more distant. Additionally, this year, the worry that the ANC (African National Congress) would continue to have its two-thirds majority, which it won in the 2004 election and which enables a party to have powers to change the country's constitution, spurred many non voters into action and not only did many people who have never voted before (but have happily complained about the government) actually vote, but we had a high voter turnout at around 77% - when it comes to elections it's the one time that South Africans are not apathetic.

When the results were finally announced most of the country breathed a collective sigh of relief and the festivities continued, though for different reasons: the ANC won by a huge margin, satisfying 65.9% of the electorate, but didn't quite reach the two-thirds majority, satisfying the rest of the electorate, so it was win-win all round for everyone, and marked the end of a very exciting period in our democratic history.

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