The DA and De Lille

RW Johnson says the current chaos in Cape Town poses some serious questions for the party

To read the statement of the DA Federal Executive about their investigation into the management of Cape Town under Patricia De Lille is a deeply disturbing experience. Poor leadership, degeneration of trust, misdirecting Council officials, failure to allow officials to do their jobs, interfering with project plans, gross misconduct, gross dereliction of duty, lying to Council over a lengthy period of time both about the loss of revenue from the Transport and Urban Development Authority and about the upgrades in her own home, mismanagement of the water crisis, responsibility for the city having its audit status down-graded - the list goes on and on.

The ANC has opportunistically withdrawn its motion of no confidence (even though it had cited many of the items above) and may now swing round to support De Lille but previous reports that as many as 59 DA councillors might support De Lille will now presumably be shelved. Given that the party's FedEx itself has mandated a no confidence vote it is hard to see how any DA councillors can defy that instruction without risking their own seats.

The DA has moved very slowly to deal with De Lille because it fears a repetition of the difficulties it encountered when it attempted to dismiss Peter Marais as Mayor in 2001. However, even if one assumes that it now smoothly removes De Lille, many questions remain.

Let us assume, for the sake of argument, that the DA charges are correct. And let us go back to 2003 when De Lille formed the Independent Democrats as a result of floor-crossing. In the 2004 legislative elections the ID garnered 1.7% of the vote (269,765 votes), though it was clearly a regional party with most of its support in the Western and Northern Cape. In the 2006 local elections it sustained its vote, this time taking 2.0% on a lower turnout.

This meant that in Cape Town the ID was an obvious component of the coalition that Helen Zille was then putting forward in order to become the city's first DA Mayor. To the astonishment of her own party members De Lille decided, however, to side with the ANC against the DA. This led to growing trouble within the ID, culminating in a disastrous by-election result when its voters showed overwhelmingly that they were hostile to De Lille's alliance with the ANC. Only then did De Lille accept her voters' verdict. These ructions did not help the ID and in the 2009 legislative elections the ID total fell to a mere 0.92% (162,915 votes) and it became clear that De Lille's boomlet was over.

Hence De Lille's decision to merge the ID into the DA in August 2010 - although De Lille retained membership of the ID until 2014 when, at long last, the ID was dissolved. Then in March 2011 De Lille was elected Mayor with the support of the DA leadership, thus displacing Dan Plato who had served quite blamelessly in succession to Helen Zille. After five years the DA again nominated De Lille as their mayoral candidate in the 2016 municipal elections. This was widely understood to be part of a package deal agreed with De Lille in return for the effective takeover of the ID by the DA.

Even at the time there was criticism of this move from some commentators. It seemed clear that the ID was anyway on the road to oblivion and that most of its voters were likely to melt into the DA electorate with or without a merger. That is, the merger was mainly a life-belt for De Lille. Thus it seemed to many that handing over the mayoralty of Cape Town - the DA's crown jewels - in return for the merger was to pay an excessive price.

Moreover, De Lille's earlier decision to side with the ANC against the DA - against the overwhelming wishes of her own voters - not only illuminated her highly autocratic style but suggested that she had a visceral dislike of the DA and, perhaps, of the middle class whites who featured prominently among its supporters. If that was indeed the case, the DA was not just paying too high a price but putting a viper in its own bosom. Such fears appear now to have been amply vindicated.

Anyone with management experience knows that misconduct on the scale alleged does not emerge suddenly but is instead visible from someone's management style at an early stage. In De Lille's case it was well known that she had ruled the ID with a rod of iron as a complete autocrat, so her likely management style was no secret when the DA first appointed her as mayor.

Sure enough, she soon began centralising power in her own hands, reducing the mayoral committee to mere bystanders and frequently intervening in appointments and other matters beyond the normal exercise of her authority. If the DA charge sheet is indeed correct, it must surely be the case that the other forms of mis-management detailed there would also have manifested themselves quite early on, including the tendencies of dishonesty and concealment detailed there.

Thus the events of this week not only suggest that the critics of the original merger with the ID were quite correct but they pose several awkward questions for the DA:

First, if De Lille was as poor a Mayor as the DA FedEx now says, surely some explanation and apology is due to Cape Town voters for the DA having imposed her on them in the first place? Looking back, giving Dan Plato another term would seem to have been a far better option.

Second, De Lille has been Mayor for nearly seven years. Surely many of her alleged sins must have manifested themselves long ago, so why wait till now to take action? If the DA FedEx is right it is extremely discomfiting for DA voters that Cape Town has been thus ruled for so long.

Above all, why was De Lille re-nominated as the DA Mayoral candidate in 2016? Had the party then thanked De Lille for her term and nominated a new candidate in her place, none of the legal issues which now dog her case would exist. It is, in this regard, quite stunning to recall that not long ago De Lille was the favourite to become the DA Leader in the Western Cape and to follow Helen Zille as the province's Premier.

These are mistakes enough but it is alarming to hear Mmusi Maimane say that now the DA must "deal with" Helen Zille's recent tweeted piece of irony about colonialism. It should be realised that the crisis over her last such tweet never needed to happen: Maimane, accosted about it on air by Eusebius McKaiser, immediately denounced his predecessor - made policy up on the hop simply to please McKaiser.

He could easily have side-stepped, said just that he didn't agree but must talk to Helen about it when next he saw her. Worse, he implicitly accepted the SACP's "colonialism of a special type" theory and thus equated colonialism and apartheid when in fact apartheid was introduced many years after South Africa had ceased to be a Dominion, let alone a colony. But after he had taken position live on air he had to follow through, ending with Zille's public humiliation. That was bad enough but Maimane should now stop and consider.

Zille remains the most dynamic figure dealing with the Western Cape water crisis. She is, with good reason, the most popular politician in Cape Town and the public there has far more confidence in her than in anyone else. She is an inevitable and necessary part of any emergency disaster management team for Cape Town and the province.

On top of which, having finally decided to sack De Lille, the last thing the DA can afford is to think of doing the same to Zille. Whatever the annoyance over Zille's tweeting - and it would be better for everyone if her Twitter account was closed down - the fact remains that she laboured mightily and with great effect for the DA cause over many years. She has, as the Romans would say "deserved well of her party". She should be left alone to deal with the crisis, which is what she does best.

RW Johnson