Helen Zille (Real Name: Otta Helene Maree, born March 9, 1951) is undoubtedly one of the most influential women in South Africa and also one of the important figures in the anti-apartheid struggle. A member of the Democratic Alliance, Helen is known for her fight against crime and drug abuse in Cape Town.
She is currently the chairperson of the Democratic Alliance Federal Council (FedCo), a position she has occupied since October 2019. Zille is also a former Member of Parliament having served her term from 2004-2006 and since 2009, she served as the Premier of Cape Town until 2019. She has held a number o important positions both within the DA as well as in the country, including holding the position of education MEC of Western Cape Province from 1999 to 2004. It is not only in the professional scene that she has a lot to show; all other boxes in the other aspects of her life have also been ticked.
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Early Life of Helen Zille And Her Jewish Roots
Born March 9, 1951, in Hillbrow, Johannesburg, South Africa as the eldest child of her family, Otta Helene Zille attended the St Mary’s School, Waverley before she went further to the University of the Witwatersrand, where she obtained a Bachelor of Arts degree. While in the University, Helen was also involved in politics. In the late 1960s, she joined the Young Progressives and the youth movement of the liberal and anti-apartheid Progressive Party.
There are no records of her parents but her maternal grandfather and paternal grandmother were Jewish and her father’s uncle was the artist Heinrich Zille. She is fluent in 4 languages, Xhosa, Afrikaans, English, and German which is her parent’s first language. The family moved to South Africa, from Germany in the 1930s to avoid Nazi persecution and they lived in Rivonia.
Helen first became famous during the apartheid era as a political journalist. She was working for South Africa’s leading liberal newspaper, the Rand Daily Mail. One of the issues that led to her prominence was the death of Steve Biko, the national leader of the Black Consciousness Movement who died while in police custody in 1977. Zille was able to uncover the truth about his death despite all efforts by the apartheid government to hide it. She also received the award for Newsmaker of the Year 2006 by the National Press Club in July 2007.
Political Rise To Becoming One of SA’s Most Powerful Women
Together with fellow journalist and editor Allister Sparks, Zille decided to dig into the activist’s death. This was after the Minister of Justice and the police J.T Kruger had announced that Biko had died in prison as a result of a long hunger strike. The two discovered that the story was a cover-up after obtaining substantial evidence from several doctors who were involved in the case. They exposed that Biko’s death had actually been as a result of a severe head injury.
This was to become one of the most controversial pieces of news and the paper’s headline “No sign of hunger strike-Biko doctors” resulted in Kruger threatening to ban The Rand Daily Mail. Zille and Sparks were brought upon charges and found guilty of tendentious reporting and the newspaper was asked to print a retraction of the details.
Within the same period, Helen proved she was a strong anti-apartheid activist and a member of Black Sash and other pro-democracy groups in the 1980s. In the 1986 State of Emergency, Zille and her husband Professor John Maree offered their house as a safe house for political activists. Her struggle for democracy saw her go into hiding with her two-year-old son. She was the vice-chair of the End Conscription Campaign in Western Cape and was also on the regional and national executives of the Black Sash. She was arrested during this time for being in a group area without a permit and served a suspended prison sentence.
Zille was so involved in South Africa Beyond Apartheid and the Cape Town Peace Committee and also collected evidence for the Goldstone Commission which was investigating attempts to destabilize the Western Cape during the election period of 1994. She was then invited by the Democratic Party (now the Democratic Alliance [DA]) to write a draft policy for Education in the Western Cape.
Zille became a Member of the Western Cape Provincial Legislature and was appointed MEC for Education and by 2004 she was already DA’s representative at the parliament. Within the DA, she rose to the level of deputy federal chairperson and served as a national party spokesperson and spokesperson for education.
On 6 May 2007, following her political activeness, Zille was elected as DA’s party leader. Within the same year, she was arrested in Mitchells Plain for protesting against drugs, under the Regulation of Gatherings Act. She was later found not guilty.
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In 2008, Helen Zille was elected the World Mayor of the Year due to her success in fighting crime and drug abuse in the city of Cape Town as well as reducing unemployment (which declined from 20.7% to 17.9%). During her tenure as mayor, Zille presided over several positive changes in the areas of crime, debt, and development. Cape town city saw a reduction of debt by almost 1 billion Rand which improved the service of the city. A 90% reduction in crime over the years made the city a much safer place and improved its growth and development.
Although Helen Zille may not have been the mayor of Cape Town during the 2010 World Cup, she was in charge of the preparations for the worldwide games before her tenure as mayor came to an end. Consequently, some of the success of the FIFA World Cup 2010 can be attributed to Zille’s leadership and plans.
She was Premier of the Western Cape from 2009 until 2019 and then she became Federal Council Chairperson of the Democratic Alliance in the same year. She still occupies the same position.
She’s Been Married For Almost Two Decades With Two Children
— Helen Zille (@helenzille) March 24, 2014
Helen Zille is married to Emeritus Professor Johann Maree. The couple got married in 1982 and they have two sons named Paul and Thomas. Maree has maintained a very low profile despite being married to a national figure as Zille. He is a graduate of UCT and gained a Ph.D. award in 1986.
The DA frontwoman and her husband had their first son, Paul Maree in 1986. Just like his father, Paul has kept a very low profile. He obtained a BSocSc in 2008 from the University of Cape Town. Paul is the founder of the South African education online platform, Paper Video which started in 2014 together with Chris Mills.
Helen Zille’s second son, Thomas Maree was born in 1989. He has also maintained a low profile , hence, not much is known about him except that he is also a graduate of UTC with a BSocSc.
In April 2017, Zille and her husband became proud grandparents with the arrival of their granddaughter Mila. The baby girl was born to her son, Paul Maree, and daughter-in-law Gretl.
Helen Zille Owned A Simple House
Helen is not as extravagant as it is with most politicians. She bought her first house in 1979. The semidetached house in Earl Street, Woodstock was purchased at the price of R11 000 with strong financial help from her father. She later sold the house for R50 000. In 2014, the Western Cape Government agreed to pay for a multi-million rand upgrade of her private home in Rosebank, Cape Town.
While she was a Premier, Helen Zille lived with her husband in a government house in Leeuwenhof, Cape Town, until she left the position. She then moved to a house owned by Le Roux where she lived for a few months rent-free while waiting for a retirement home. This generated a lot of controversy with claims of conflict of interest as Le Roux was one of the authors of a report which suggested the ousting of Mmusi Maimane, former DA leader.
The net worth of Zille as well as the car she drives remain unknown to the public.