South Africa Opposition's Ex-Leader Keeps Post After Tweet Dispute

  • Democratic Alliance’s Zille apologizes, stays province premier
  • Zille to be excluded from party structures, top meetings

Helen Zille

Photographer: Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images

Helen Zille, the former leader of South Africa’s main opposition Democratic Alliance, will remain as premier of the Western Cape province after publicly apologizing for tweets that appeared to defend colonialism.

Zille’s comments about the allegedly positive aspects of colonialism were criticized as offensive to black people and by the ruling African National Congress and some members of her own party, and threatened to undermine the DA’s campaign to shift away from being viewed as a mostly-white opposition group.

Helen Zille

Photographer: Marco Longari/AFP via Getty Images

While the decision to keep Zille as premier may help to maintain support from white and mixed-race voters in the Western Cape province where she is seen as central to the party’s success, it could alienate black supporters in the rest of the country. Removing her from the post would have led to “a protracted legal battle” and that may have hurt the party in the run up to elections in 2019, according to DA leader Mmusi Maimane.

Zille will be excluded from all party structures and the DA will control her communication on politics, including on social media, Maimane told reporters in Johannesburg on Tuesday. Zille has 1.14 million twitter followers, more than three times the number the party’s official Twitter account has.

The DA is the country’s biggest opposition party and its seeking to capture more supporters from the black majority to broaden its appeal. It’s in power in the Western Cape, which includes Cape Town and is the only province not controlled by the ANC. Gains in council elections in August saw it take over several cities including the capital, Pretoria, and economic hub, Johannesburg.

Caused Offense

“After a period of debate and reflection, I recognize the offense caused by my tweets,” Zille said on Tuesday. “I therefore apologize unreservedly to the South African public who were offended by the tweets and my subsequent explanation of it.”

The tweets were also criticized by other opposition parties and Zille remaining in the top provincial post may put at risk the party’s agreement that helps it run some of the country’s biggest cities.

Julius Malema, the leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters, the second-largest opposition group, warned last week it will stop voting with the DA in city councils. That would leave the party without enough support to hold onto mayoral positions in Johannesburg and Pretoria. EFF spokespeople didn’t answer calls or respond to text messages seeking comment.

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