The DA will never forget Patricia de Lille

Cape Town mayor Patricia De Lille shortly before judgment was delivered. PHOTO: Chantall Presence / ANA

Whatever happens to Cape Town executive mayor Patricia de Lille over the next few months, one thing is certain: the DA will never forget her.

Its attempts to kick her out of the party backfired in the Cape Town High Court on the day many believed the axe would fall on her – 27 June 2018. Instead, it was the DA who was forced to endure the ultimate humiliation a full bench of the High Court pointing out that it had disregarded its own constitution in trying to get rid of her.

It was an unprecedented embarrassment for a party that repeatedly boasts about its commitment to the South African Constitution. And now, at the very least, it didn’t seem to know its own constitution.

And this will not be its only worry….

The DA’s performance over the past few months – being given the runaround by just one skilled politician – has raised a necessarily blunt question: does it have the balls to govern South Africa in 2019?

Based on its display of ineptitude, ignorance, and arrogance in what has become known as the De Lille saga, the answer must be an emphatic ‘No’. Retracing the route that led to her having to turn repeatedly to the High Court in her quest for justice, De Lille says: “They [the DA] found me guilty in December 2017 on allegations that they did not even bother to test. They wrote to me, giving me just 24 hours to supply reasons as to why I should not resign, or why they should not institute a vote of no confidence in me. I looked at the letter and thought: ‘What the hell is going on here?

But if she was stunned, it was only momentarily. What followed next was vintage De Lille….

“We live in a country where people have rights”, she says. “Many people fought and died for the rights that people enjoy today, but which were absent in 1994. I was one of those who fought for those rights. I was one of the people who negotiated the transition from the old to the new order. I was party to the writing of the Constitution – the interim Constitution and the final Constitution. So I know my rights – and I’m prepared to use them. My struggle with the party became a human rights issue. In terms of our Constitution, I am entitled to natural justice, to access to justice and to the protection of the common law.”

As a South African, I said to the DA: ‘No, you’re violating my rights. Stop! De Lille is clear about who initiated the attempts to expel her from the party….

It was JP Smith, she says. According to her, Smith was angry because she had confronted him about the Metro Police operating illegally. It was trying to do the work of the real police, she says.

“The law prescribes the role and function of this unit. In terms of the Constitution, it can only deal with traffic fines, enforce bylaws and devise a crime prevention strategy.”

She says she stepped in to stop Smith, and he didn’t take it well. “He responded by writing a 30-page letter to party bosses expressing his unhappiness.” This, and the so-called Steenhuisen report formed the basis of a number of allegations of malfeasance against her, all of which she said must be tested.

Those who have sided with her have pointed to an old boys’ network within the DA who do not tolerate ‘outsiders’ who might be seen to be pushing against the tried, the tested and the comfortable.

It is an observation that De Lille agrees with.

“The people who are taking me on today come from a very privileged background: white, and born with a silver spoon in their mouths,” she says.

“They have a baasskap mentality that makes them think: ‘I’m white. I’m the boss. When I speak all you have to do is ask: “How high?”

It is something she would never do, she says. “The days of white baasskap are over. We are all equal before the law and the Constitution. This is what I want to teach those boys in the DA.”

Even before the High Court judges pointed out that the DA had flouted its own constitution, De Lille was making the exact point. She says that after the DA leader Mmusi Maimane had tried to put her on special leave in August 2017, she had to tell him: “But leader, there is no such thing as “special leave” in the DA constitution.”

Her management style – she has been described as a bully – has also come under scrutiny. But her response to accusations of bullying is forthright: “When last did you hear of any male politician accused of being a bully?” she asks. “It’s because of the patriarchal society in which we live. They accuse me and Helen Zille of being dictators because in this patriarchal society they expect women to behave in a certain way.”

She acknowledges that she is a strict disciplinarian, but there are good reasons for this, she says. Firstly, she was brought up in a home in which discipline was regarded as a key to success. Secondly, it is because of her commitment to the poor.

“I am committed to building an equal society,” De Lille says. “Every morning when I come to work, I ask myself:  ‘What can I do today to make sure that more people taste the fruits of our democracy. The struggle against apartheid was about the masses. In this regard, I keep reminding our administrators why we are in government, what we must do and how quickly we must do it.”

Some people, don’t like hearing this.

De Lille says there are DA members too who are opposed to her wanting to break down the City’s old apartheid spatial plans. “They want the old order to continue. They are happy with black people living far away from the centre of the City, and paying almost half their weekly wages on travel costs.

“I want to bring the poor into the City, using land owned by the City, and building upwards. I also want to bring people who were moved out of places like Woodstock and Salt River, back to their former residential areas.”

The water crisis was another matter that led to a head-on confrontation between De Lille on the one side, and members of the party and powerful business interests on the other….

On one occasion, De Lille says, someone started a rumour that she had instructed the City not to use expertise from Israel for the building of desalination plants. “It wasn’t true, but I received a call from Mmusi Maimane asking for an explanation. I replied that mayors are not allowed to interfere in tender processes. But the water plan for desalination that was presented to me by people in the City was deeply concerning. It was for the construction of 12 desalination plants, at low outputs, at a cost of more than R5 billion. The contractors were going to sell the purified water to the City at between R43 and R50 a kilolitre. We currently pay national government between R5 and R12 a kilolitre.”

De Lille says she was horrified. Someone would have had to pay for it. The auditor-general would have wanted to know where the money was going to come from. It would have meant raising water tariffs by more than 200 percent.

“It would have been political suicide,” she says. De Lille says she spoke with experts across the globe, and their verdict was unanimous. “They told me the plan would never work – and that it had never worked anywhere else in the world.”

“I stopped it. I intervened and asked the City’s team to focus more on groundwater as all experts and assessments showed that we could get higher volumes at a lower cost on groundwater projects compared to desalination. “The contractors turned on me. It was alleged – and I don’t have any proof on this – that some of them were party funders.”


Dougie Oakes is in his fourth decade as a journalist and writer, having written extensively in South Africa and the United Kingdom.