Before Helen Zille began her career in politics, she worked as a political correspondent for the Rand Daily Mail, where she covered key political stories, such as the death of black consciousness activist, Steve Biko.
In 1977, she was able to prove that Biko had been tortured to death and that the official version of the story, which claimed he had died of natural causes, was false.
From the 1980s onward she became involved in NGOs and activist organisations, including the Open Society Foundation, the Independent Media Diversity Trust and the Black Sash. She also campaigned against vigilantism and repression in the Cape townships, and was part of the peace movement that worked to bring warring factions in Crossroads together.
She obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree from the University of Witwatersrand and joined the former Democratic Party in the mid-1990s, where she was asked to reformulate the party’s education policy and stand as a candidate on its election list for the Western Cape legislature. She also acted as Technical Adviser to the party at CODESA in the early 1990s.
Helen was elected to the provincial parliament in the 1999 general election under the banner of the Democratic Alliance.
From 1999 to 2001, she served as Minister of Education in the Western Cape Province. During this two-and-a-half-year period, she made 500 school visits in a campaign to encourage discipline among teachers and improve teaching conditions.
When the ANC gained power in 2001, she became leader of the opposition in the Western Cape legislature, where she remained until she was elected as a member of the National Parliament in 2004.
As a Democratic Alliance MP, she served on the Portfolio Committee on Education, and acted as the DA’s National Spokesperson. Her constituency included Langa, Gugulethu and Khayelitsha.
On 15 March 2006, she was elected as Mayor of Cape Town and resigned from parliament. Two years later, in 2008, she was voted World Mayor in a poll of over 800 cities around the world conducted by global think tank World Mayors.
On 6 May 2007, she was elected as the Leader of the Democratic Alliance at the party’s Federal Congress in Johannesburg and, in May 2009, became Premier of the Western Cape Province following the April 2009 National and Provincial Government elections.
Helen Zille’s work as mayor, and in particular her successes in tackling crime, drug abuse and unemployment in Cape Town, led to her selection as World Mayor of the Year in 2008 – from a field of 820 candidates. “Helen Zille is a passionate and very hard-working mayor who has stood up to enormous bullying to push for improved service delivery in her city” — www.worldmayor.com. She was also chosen as Newsmaker of the year 2006 by the National Press Club in July 2007, and is a former finalist in the South African Woman of the Year Award. She speaks English, Afrikaans, and Xhosa as well as German, the language of her parents.
Helen, we salute you!
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