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The World According to Helen Zille 0

Helen Zille has done a formidable job of weaving together her personal and political lives in a highly readable work. It’s revealing, colourful, scathing, and more than a little exhausting. By the time I finished Not Without a Fight, Helen Zille’s autobiography, I was exhausted. But not by the writing. Zille, who started out as a journalist, weaves an interesting story. She accounts for her life with pace, clarity, drama, suspense and humor – and it’s a good tale.

Indeed, her opponents, both within and beyond the Democratic Alliance (DA), might say that this is a work of fiction. Those accusations will surely come in the weeks ahead, and this review cannot test their veracity. But I can say that Zille has done a powerful job of bringing together her personal and political lives in a highly readable work. A pertinent question here is whether most readers will appreciate the sometimes mind-numbing level of detail, which brings the book to 510 pages.

Zille describes her heritage, the hardships and survival of her immigrant parents, her complex relationship with her mother and her deaf sister, her struggles with anorexia, her love life, and her notable contributions to South African journalism. As a reporter for the Rand Daily Mail, she broke the story of Steve Biko’s murder by the apartheid regime.

But what stands out is her celebrated political career in South Africa’s main opposition party, the DA. The picture is most revealing. If you thought the African National Congress (ANC) was the only organisation riven by factions and greed, you were wrong. The DA, it emerges, is a snake pit of egos, naked ambition, factional politics, and perpetual plotting. In other words, not so different from the rest.

Zille is first generation South African of German descent. Her parents settled in South Africa just before and after the Second World War. Both were half-Jewish (her father had a Jewish mother, and her mother had a Jewish father), not that it mattered to Adolf Hitler.

The significance of her Jewish heritage was impressed on her during a May 2015 Holocaust memorial service in the Jewish cemetery in Pinelands, Cape Town. There she heard 93-year old Holocaust survivor Ella Blumenthal speak about losing her entire immediate family – 23 people – in the Nazi concentration camps. Blumenthal had her tattooed concentration-camp number surgically removed after settling down in South Africa. She would tell her children that the scar was the result of “an accident”.

Zille recalls how her own paternal grandmother told her and her siblings as children that members of her family that appeared in a portrait that hung above her bed had simply “died”. Through the help of a genealogist, Zille came to discover the many members of her family who were murdered by the Nazi regime. Her maternal grandfather was saved from a Gestapo prison by his prominent non-Jewish wife after he was picked up during the Kristallnacht, the infamous 1938 pogrom that foreshadowed what was to come.

Zille’s parents seemingly preferred not to burden their children with their loss. Zille says she often wondered “why Jews who escaped the Holocaust seemed so determined to bury their experiences”. It was, however, an experience that helped her parents to ground their children with a strong sense of justice.

Continue reading on The Daily Maverick

By Palesa Morudu

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