Final Word

Helen Zille anything but a wallflower


As Helen Zille was dancing her way out of the leadership of South Africa’s official opposition party, the Democratic Alliance, many commentators were scratching around for terms to with which to encapsulate her term in office.

Having had the privilege of meeting her for the first time more than three decades ago as a young reporter in Namibia, covering that country’s march to independence and democracy, one thing was clear right from the start: She would never be a mere ‘wallflower’ – rather a go-getter, keen to get involved in the action.

Her development as a person was almost as interesting, if not more so, as that of the term ‘wallflower’.

Today most people would understand the term as the description of someone, mostly female, who due to shyness or lack of self-confidence remains on the sidelines or close to the wall at social occasions. You would seldom see them on the dance floor.

Originally the wallflower was the catch-all name for the family of European plants under the genus Cheiranthus, producing sweet-smelling flowers in clusters on old, often garden border, walls and on rocky areas. The flowers are mostly yellow, but some orange, brown, red and purple are also seen – sorry Helen, no blue.

The collective plant name ‘wallflowers’ was first recorded in 1578.

Exactly when the comparison between the plants and those woman without dance partners on the fringes at balls came into use is not known, but it was first recorded in writing in 1820 in a poem, “Country Ball, by Mrs Campbell Praed.

Over the years, in the social context, the term broadened its scope, and dictionaries today in their definition of the term include references like: “...any person, organization, etc., that remains on or has been forced to the sidelines of any activity;” and “...  more recently the term has been expanded to include men and other social gatherings”.

And then, somewhere towards the middle of the 20th century, as voting rights for women gained momentum across the world, for a time it also gained some traction in the world of politics to describe “a woman politician given an unimportant government position so that the government can pretend it takes women seriously ...”

Women’s suffrage

The history of women’s suffrage is quite interesting in itself. Limited voting rights were first gained by women in Sweden, Finland and some western U.S. states in the late 19th century. By 1904 there was an International organisation, the International Woman Suffrage Alliance, in place to promote equal political rights for women.

South Africa joined the fray in 1930, with qualified voting rights for women in terms of the Women's Enfranchisement Act passed that year by parliament.

The first general election in which some South African women could vote, took place in 1933. Leila Reitz, wife of the then cabinet minister Deneys Reitz, became the country’s first female Member of Parliament. Her constituency was Parktown, neighbouring constituency to Houghton were another Helen, Helen Suzman, would become the most famous female MP in South African history.

Voting rights for women came fairly late to some Western democracies ­– France in 1944, Greece 1952, Switzerland 1971 and Liechtenstein only 1984.

No wallflower

Dancing on the stage, surrounded by DA supporters, has become one of Helen Zille’s trademarks over the past almost a decade. On that score, for sure, she cannot be described as a ‘wallflower’.

On the political front she became South Africa’s first female leader of an opposition party, fighting her way up through the ranks.

Immediately after last year’s general election the governing African National Congress expressed its concern that only one of the eight provinces (the Northern Cape) in which it rules had a female premier candidate. It then introduced some sort of a quota for future elections and a rule that if the premier in a province was male, the speaker in the legislature had to be female.

Since then, through a process of political ‘redeployment’, the number of ANC female provincial premiers have grown to four.

Now, some of those appointments might be regarded as political wallflowers, but having secured her position as party leader through internal elections, it is not a label that can be pinned on Helen Zille.

by Piet Coetzer

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