Radical Woman of the Day: Helen Zille

On this day in 1951 was born Helen Zille, former journalist and anti-apartheid activist, former Mayor of Cape Town, and current Premier of the Western Cape. Born in Johannesburg and educated at the University of the Witwatersrand, Zille began working as a journalist for the anti-apartheid paper the Rand Daily Mail in 1974.

In 1977 Zille broke a monumental story when she obtained evidence that activist Steve Biko had died in prison from a head injury, not—as Minister of Justice and the Police J.T. Kruger claimed—as a result of a hunger strike. Despite the evidence being later corroborated by Biko’s inquest, Zille and her editor Allister Sparks were found guilty of “tendentious reporting” by the Press Council, and the paper was forced to issue a “correction”. Zille and Sparks later resigned from the Rand Daily Mail when its owner tried to force them to dilute the paper’s equal-rights platform.

Throughout the 1980s Zille participated actively in the anti-apartheid movement, at one point being forced into hiding along with her two-year-old son. In 1993, after the apartheid policy had officially ended, she accepted the position of Director of Development and Public Affairs at the University of Cape Town, and a few years later she got involved with the Democratic Party when they asked her to draft a policy for Education in the Western Cape. In 2004 she won election to Parliament with the Democratic Alliance and in 2006 was elected Mayor of Cape Town in 2006. In 2007 she succeeded Tony Leon as leader of the Democratic Alliance, and she currently leads the party while serving as Premier of the Western Cape, a seat she won in 2009.