Page last updated at 13:49 GMT, Wednesday, 15 April 2009 14:49 UK

Profile: Helen Zille

Helen Zille
Helen Zille is particularly popular in Western Cape province

Helen Zille is the mayor of Cape Town and leader of the Democratic Alliance.

Her party seems poised to perform well in upcoming elections in the Western Cape, where she is a candidate for premier in provincial elections.

Long before pursuing a career in politics, Ms Zille was a journalist with the liberal Rand Daily Mail newspaper.

Her greatest scoop as a political reporter came in 1977 when she uncovered how black consciousness activist Steve Biko had been tortured to death while in police custody.

In doing so, she disproved the official version that he died of natural causes and established her credentials as an anti-apartheid critic.

The 58-year-old's first flirtation with politics came in the 1980s, when she worked with non-governmental organisations and pro-democracy group the Black Sash, a white women's civil rights movement.

Early career

This interest in politics was cemented in the mid-1990s when she joined the liberal Democratic Party - later to become the Democratic Alliance, in 2000 - where she was asked to reformulate the party's education policy and stand as a candidate for the Western Cape legislature.

After being elected to the Cape provincial parliament in 1999, she entered parliament in 2004 and became her party's spokeswoman on education.

A fluent speaker of Xhosa, she cultivated the DA's membership in the black townships around Cape Town and was a finalist for South African Woman of the Year in 2003.

In March 2006, Ms Zille was elected mayor of Cape Town, and resigned from parliament.

Her position as mayor was fiercely contested by the governing African National Congress (ANC) and elevated her status, making her one of the Democratic Alliance's most high-profile figures.

In May 2007 the Johannesburg-born politician was elected party leader.

World Mayor award

The married mother-of-two is widely regarded as having managed to balance her dual role as mayor of the country's legislative capital and as Democratic Alliance leader with aplomb.

Her tenure at city hall in Cape Town, the only major city in the country not governed by the ANC, has been seen as a success, with anecdotal evidence suggesting that the city's image has improved.

In 2008 Ms Zille was bestowed with the World Mayor award by City Mayors, an international think-tank.

This accolade has meant that Cape Town has been seen as a testing ground for the Democratic Alliance's policies on issues such as urban renewal, crime, drugs and corruption.

In the past, Ms Zille has said she does not believe she will ever be president of South Africa not least, she feels, because she is white.

But she has stated a belief that her job is to create a political choice for the people of South Africa who are disaffected by what she describes as the presumption, arrogance and mismanagement of the ANC.

Some people tell me 'Mrs Zille you shouldn't dance, it's not your style'
Helen Zille
DA leader

As an opposition leader, Ms Zille has been a vocal critic of the ANC on issues such as judicial independence and its handling of crime.

After corruption charges against ANC leader Jacob Zuma were dropped, Ms Zille led her party's legal challenge against the decision.

She accused prosecutors of bowing to political pressure just two weeks before elections.

"We believe there's been terrible abuse here. We believe none of the reasons given are justification for withdrawing the case and we are going to stop that abuse," said Ms Zille, of the decision by the National Prosecuting Authority to drop charges.

But Ms Zille is not without her own detractors.

Her dancing and singing while on the campaign trail have prompted ridicule in some circles, forcing her to defend herself.

"Some people tell me 'Mrs Zille you shouldn't dance, it's not your style'," she revealed on the campaign trail.

"Must I stand stiff and say 'no thanks, I don't want to dance?'," she said, adding that song and dance are part of South African culture.

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