The De Lille scandal was a long time in coming

Thomas Johnson says DA administration in Cape Town has become characterised by bullying and arrogance

The allegations against Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille, which emanated within the DA and city, have finally put paid to the article of faith among the party and its supporters that it is a paragon of ethical and corrupt-free governance and sound management. Even now there’s disbelief among the faithful that it can’t be true. Last week a friend asserted the allegations are not proven despite the Bowman Gilfillan (and Alderman JP Smith’s) report indicating otherwise. As to be expected, De Lille denies it.

Unlike many within the party, its supporters and political analysts, which I’m not, I noted the DA’s willingness to dredge the smelly swamp of corruption and unethical governance six years ago when Premier Helen Zille was party leader. In a story that received little media attention, the Western Cape government was accused of political interference in the operations and policy decisions of the independent provincial agency CapeNature in order to change policy that benefitted the agri-industry. This is the definition of regulatory capture.

According to the ANC’s Max Ozinsky, “after meeting only farmers in 2010, she [Zille] instructed [environment] MEC [Anton] Bredell to ensure hundreds of hunting licences were issued to farmers without following any due process and in contravention of the regulations and laws governing CapeNature”.

Zille strenuously denied the accusations. But minutes of a CapeNature board meeting proved two MECs including Bredell and members of the industry attended the supposedly private meetings and, in contravention of CapeNature’s independence, were parties to the decision to change policy that had far-reaching consequences for the Western Cape’s predators, including protected Cape leopard. It’s improbable Zille didn’t know her ministers attended the meetings and its outcome. This is a classic case of political pressure and regulatory capture. (Disclosure: I lodged a complaint with the public protector’s Cape Town office but they never investigated despite referring the “politically sensitive” matter to Pretoria for attention. That was during fêted Thuli Madonsela’s tenure.)

In 2016 just before the municipal elections I wrote warning Cape Town’s voters the “DA’s transformation into a Mini-Me version of the ANC is almost complete: both parties condescend and ignore citizens’ interests, treat us with contempt and consider us election fodder”. I said the city’s voters shall be responsible for the consequences should the DA, as expected, receive an overwhelming election win, which they did.

Like many, I was and am very concerned about De Lille’s and the DA council’s arrogance, combativeness toward and dismissal of citizens’ concerns, particularly over its unsustainable and irresponsible red-carpet development approach and mismanagement of the Cape Town Stadium. Add to that this past year is their incompetence and tardiness dealing with the water crisis despite two years – 2015 and 2016 – of drought and the known impact of climate change on rainfall.

Among the complaints Smith raised to party leader Mmusi Maimane and federal executive chairman James Selfe that resonate are De Lille “indulged vanity projects”, “made nepotistic appointments”, which arguably includes appointing the young former ID cadre, Xanthea Limberg, who had no executive experience, to the water portfolio and that she “failed to deal with the water crisis during her first term”.

Mondli Makhanya writes, “Welcome to the real world of power politics, guys”, stating the DA are not immune to “vicious contestations”, which were not made public (or were not present) during Tony Leon’s stewardship, that “take place in other parties, particularly the ANC”. These “power battles are natural and can strengthen parties, provided they are not destructive and disruptive of governance”. I agree with him to an extent the DA are similar to other parties in that (as I wrote in 2016) “once you strip away their urbane and educated accents, they are scrappy street fighters who use abusive verbiage and insults and not rational argument”.

But Makhanya is missing the point because among all South Africa’s political parties, the DA has claimed for themselves – purported heirs to Helen Suzman’s et al liberal democratic values – the moral high road. They claim they utterly reject corruption, government mismanagement and patronage in all its forms wherever it’s found, especially in the ANC. This is their raison d'être and why they regularly fight the ANC government all the way to the Constitutional Court.

So why have the national, provincial and Cape metro DA leadership let their premier Western Cape and national project – the City of Cape Town – down so badly, and with it the citizens of Cape Town? Surely, they knew or suspected what was transpiring – the putrid, festering sore of corruption and nepotism – and, to put it mildly, De Lille’s “problematic leadership“. How could they be unaware of the disquiet when for a few years analysts, residents and residents’ associations (and me) regularly pointed out problems with De Lille’s administration to little effect?  

The probable answer: they knew but didn’t care because, as with such things, while it was simmering out of view, it hadn’t reached the public tipping point, which city executive director Craig Kesson’s statement finally revealed, forcing their hand. Except for that, we’d be none the wiser and are thankful to him.

Thus, if we follow this reasoning the DA is not our fearless protector against corruption they claim to be and champion of a corrupt-free country when their members are implicated, corruption they expediently downplay and hide until they’re forced to act to manage reputational damage and public opprobrium, not because of any other reason, say, the principle of the matter – self-righteously, to them, principle only applies when the ANC breaks the rules.

In her Daily Maverick column, Helen Zille, who Delphic-like opines about governance, wrote her administration has “prevented the problem of precariousness [of “politicians in executive office and contracted departmental heads”] by seeking the best available ‘fit at the top’ (provincial ministers and their departmental heads). This helps ensure stability and continuity. But we have not yet been able to adequately address the problems that come with permanency a few rungs down the ladder”, as if tenured employees cause all the problems.

What she’s saying is MECs and heads of department are the best professional, technical and ethical talent available to her and DA in the Western Cape. And since it’s the DA leadership that selects mayors, mayoral committee members and councillors and appoints administrative executive officers, it follows De Lille, who was Zille’s protégé and successor whom she inducted into the party when De Lille’s party, the ID, was absorbed in a political marriage of convenience, must also be the “best available fit at the top” per DA practice.

But I know from firsthand experience Zille’s claim of “best fit” in the provincial government is not true, and therefore, she asserts or believes it to be true even when it’s not. To me, the CapeNature matter revealed the start of a disturbing tendency within the DA government to illegally apply pressure, flout regulations and subvert the independence of agencies to further the agendas of interest groups, i.e., regulatory capture.

The city has done something similar by approving and fast-tracking development – among De Lille’s pet “vanity” projects – in environmentally, agriculturally and culturally sensitive areas over society’s unanimous objections. One of JP Smith’s allegations was she “defeated the ends of justice by preventing officials taking legal action against by-law violations” (ibid). By-law violations include building and zoning regulations, a reluctance to prosecute I witnessed last year in my neighbourhood with an “illegal” (their words) zoning departure and structure, one example among many.

Zille’s claim that she (and the DA) will “get to the bottom” of allegations of official misconduct are not necessarily true either, if my experience in the CapeNature case is any indication.

My point is the DA administrations of Cape Town and Western Cape, despite what they and especially saint (to her social-media army of supporters) Zille claim and would have us believe, are no strangers to the cancer of corruption and mismanagement. And it’s no use to say, as their followers tiresomely protest when the subject is raised, the DA is “better” than the ANC. The ANC has set the bar so low – like the almost worthless National Senior Certificate – that even a marginally better performance by the DA is deemed merit worthy. It’s not, and not from a party that made good governance its election pillar.

This is why De Lille’s and others’ alleged malfeasance is inexcusable. I don’t agree with Mondli Makhanya that what’s happening is merely an indication of the usual internal politicking that will make the DA and DA-run institutions stronger. That’s like saying cancer makes the patient stronger, not weaker. De Lille has been a controversial figure within the city well before this. Once ensconced as mayor, she quickly lost the status of people’s champion she once, with some success, aspired to and became insufferably hubristic (not dissimilar from most politicians, it’s true).

She has an unpleasant combative streak and is unafraid to use racially loaded apartheid-era language when it suits her to justify herself. This is the language of a loser, not leader. She is a toxic, divisive presence, and in order to redeem their diminishing reputation, the DA must quickly conclude the matter of her position.

They had one chance really to prove to sceptical voters they have what it takes to manage a city, province and even country, but are failing and falling into the same quagmire the ANC did, and that’s not counting their monumental lack of vision and mismanagement of the water disaster.