My First House: Helen Zille

Mayor of Cape Town and Leader of the Democratic Alliance, Helen Zille, is standing outside her first home, a semidetached house in Earl Street, Woodstock. She’s chatting to delighted locals and signing autographs while listening patiently to the residents’ host of gripes on subjects ranging from unfair dismissal to electricity price hikes. ‘Oh, please don’t call me Madam Mayor, it reminds me of the old South Africa. I’m Helen,’ she declares cheerfully.

‘I’ve always loved the sense of community here,’ Helen says. Pointing to a house in the adjoining road, she continues: ‘The woman who lived there was always claiming she could smell a fire. It became a regular neighbourhood event. We all stood outside, watching the fire trucks and drinking tea. It was always a false alarm.’

The suburb of Woodstock is home to charming Victorian properties, the Old Biscuit Mill organic market, a trendy décor route and several new architectural developments. When she bought her first house here in 1979, Helen was the political correspondent for the Rand Daily Mail, where she made a name for herself by exposing the circumstances surrounding the death of Steve Biko, founder of the Black Consciousness Movement, at the hands of apartheid police. ‘Female journalists earned a lot less than their male counterparts were paid, and I thought the purchase price of R11 000 for the house was a huge amount of money. I got financial help from my dad,’ Helen says.

Restoring the dilapidated house was a labour of love. ‘I even hired a blowtorch and stripped the old paint off the front door. I still have the scars to prove it,’ she says, holding out her hands for inspection. She agonised over paint colours. ‘Eventually, I painted the exterior white, peach and…’ she points to a passing tabby, ‘that exact shade of pale ginger.’ When Peter Sullivan, the former political correspondent for The Star, bought the semi next door, he painted parts of the exterior bright red and yellow. ‘It looked like Shoprite. He did it just to be aspris; bloody-minded male,’ she laughs.

Helen introduces herself to Lynda Nielsen, the current owner of her old home. ‘I know who you are,’ Lynda says. ‘When I bought the house, I was given a list of previous owners, and I knew if there was a problem I could phone you.’

‘Yes, of course you can; everyone else does,’ Helen responds, adding: ‘Recently, I took a call at one in the morning from a sobbing woman who was having a dispute with her husband. My husband woke up and muttered: “I wish I could complain to the mayor every time I had an argument with my wife.”’

Accepting Lynda’s invitation, Helen steps into the house and muses: ‘How many times I’ve crossed this threshold.’ There are two little bedrooms, and a bathroom where Helen would make notes in chalk on a wall she had painted in green ‘blackboard’ paint. She also had a spiral staircase installed in order to gain access to the open-plan living-dining-kitchen area, which is in the basement.

If Helen is delighted that the quarry tiles she laid are in such good nick, she’s even more ecstatic that her tiny gas stove is still here – and in working order. ‘I bought all this stuff second-hand on Main Road, including a little fridge that now stands in my son’s cottage – it’s also still working,’ she says.

In the postage-stamp garden, both the bougainvillea and hibiscus she planted are thriving. ‘Look, there’s my mountain view,’ she exclaims. It’s one of those rare sunny days the Cape winter offers up like a reconciliatory gift after weeks of grey weather, and the corner of Table Mountain is clearly visible against the cloudless sky.

Back inside, Helen lingers at Lynda’s desk. ‘This is exactly where I put my desk,’ Helen says. ‘And I get such a chill, because I sat here and made two sobering phone calls: one to break off an engagement, and another to tell my mother not to fly out for the wedding… And it was through that window that I saw a stalker peeping in at me.’

But Helen was happy in this house. ‘Such a big part of me is still here,’ she says. Back on the street, she points out the lamppost that her husband, Johan Maree, would bump with monotonous regularity when reverse parking. ‘There must have been a blind spot in his rear-view mirror,’ she comments. ‘I used to listen out for the “ding”, and when I heard it, I knew he’d arrived.’ After Helen and Johan were married, they moved to Johan’s house in Observatory. ‘I sold the Woodstock house for R50 000 at the beginning of 1984. I thought it was a fortune,’ Helen says.

For the past 24 years, Helen, Johan and their two sons have lived on the border of Mowbray and Rosebank, just below UCT. ‘It’s been a functional home,’ Helen says. ‘We converted the garage into a cottage, where we store the children. The cars stand outside,’ she jokes.

Her advice for first-time property buyers? ‘I suppose it should be “position, position, position”, though I’ve always bought property based on the vibe of an area and never with financial gain in mind,’ Helen says. ‘If I had done, I would have originally bought in Tamboerskloof – but I don’t think that way.’ In fact, just before Helen bought in Woodstock, she had purchased a cottage in Harfield Village, Claremont. ‘I didn’t have a lot of knowledge about Cape Town, having come from Johannesburg. But, when I heard that forced removals had taken place there, I never even moved in – I just sold it on at a loss.’

Woodstock was completely integrated, so Helen was happier buying here. ‘I felt so comfortable in this house, on this street,’ she recalls. The only downside was the neighbour in the house in front of Helen’s. Every day, in full view of her bedroom window, he would urinate in his garden. ‘That drove me crazy,’ she recalls. Maybe she should have complained to the mayor.

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Words: Hedi Lampert Kemper Photograph: Ruvan Boshoff -