The De Lille Disaster

Cape Town Mayor Patricia De Lille during the full Cape Town City Council at the Council Chambers Civic Centre Photographer: Ayanda Ndamane African News Agency (ANA)

Like Tom Moyane, Ria Phiyega, Shaun Abrahams, Supra Mahumapelo and a host of others, Patricia de Lille has joined the band of those who cling to office beyond all reason when it is clear that the person or body that appointed them has lost confidence in them.

In the bad old days, one could say: “You’re fired,” the words made even more famous by Donald Trump.  No longer. Even the president of South Africa cannot fire officials in whom he has lost confidence or when they are suspected of serious misconduct, or even when the Public Protector has fingered them.  One goes through the most laborious, expensive and time-consuming procedures to get rid of people. This is great for the official concerned, but is it in the interests of the city, the province or the country, or, indeed, of the citizens who have to pay all the salaries?

Patricia de Lille, as at the time of writing, has declined to say whether she will honour her undertaking to leave the mayoralty of Cape Town.  After serious procedural missteps (remarkable for a party that has so much success in holding the ANC to account in Court) and stinging adverse Court findings on procedure that damaged the image of the party, the DA leader, Mmusi Maimane did a deal with de Lille.  In return for the DA dropping its internal party proceedings against her, she agreed to resign with effect from 31 October. At the time it was made perfectly clear that the investigation by the City Council would proceed. The arrangement showed the good sense of Maimane – and of de Lille – placing the interests of citizens ahead of those of the DA.  De Lille chose to misrepresent the deal as a complete vindication of herself, stating that she “had been cleared.” She spoke too soon.

As agreed, the City Council investigation proceeded.  Bowmans, one of South Africa’s top legal firms, produced a 2000-page report recommending that de Lille, Mayoral Committee Member Brett Herron and Transport Chief Melissa Whitehead be charged criminally. (Personal disclosure: I served articles as an attorney with Bowmans in the 1960s). Last Thursday, there was a unanimous decision by the Council, supported by all parties, including the ANC, to accept and act on the report. Certain of de Lille’s acolytes, presumably knowing what was coming, resigned as DA members and as councillors.  This is a pity; one would have preferred them to remain – some of them are good people.

In 1775, Samuel Johnson made the famous statement, “Patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel.” This line was not about patriotism in general, but the false use of the term “patriotism” by William Pitt, 1st Earl of Chatham (the patriot-minister) and his supporters.

De Lille and her supporters did not take refuge in patriotism; instead they took the cheap and easy last refuge of saying that the DA (not the unanimous Cape Town City Council) was motivated by “racism.”  Calling someone a racist in our country today is the equivalent of a political death sentence – unless, of course, it is demonstrably untrue. And this allegation of racism on the part of the DA has all the hallmarks of a manufactured, threadbare and thoroughly disreputable attempt to kick up dust.  The DA has not covered itself in glory with the handling of this matter but there is no reason to doubt that this is a matter of integrity and principle and that racism had nothing to do with it.

Is the Bowmans report also racist?  Are the serious allegations of impropriety and maladministration that justify criminal prosecution racist?

De Lille maintains that “certain individuals” aim to besmirch her reputation and that this has been part of a campaign against her for a year.  What sensible political party would act so stupidly that it would, for no reason or for no real reason, want to rid itself of an effective, honest and reliable mayor?  She forgets that the reason this saga has gone on for a year or more is that she has been resisting resigning for a year, using every stratagem in the book to postpone her departure and trying, with some success, to make the DA look like a disaster.

The defence for a year has been that no-one knows what de Lille is accused of.  Or that an “old Boys’ Club” wants her out. Or that the racists in the DA (which today has far more black, coloured and Indian supporters than white supporters) can’t stand having a woman like de Lille in office.

The latest Bowmans report was sent to all councillors at the weekend in preparation for a debate on Thursday.  Someone disreputable and dishonest breached the confidentiality and leaked copies of the report to the media. That should not have happened, but it did.  One cannot change that. When the meeting took place, all councillors, including a whole array of opposition councillors who previously voted in favour of de Lille during the motion of no confidence, voted to accept the report.  Are they all racists?

The Hawks or the SAPS will now investigate.  If there is sufficient cause, as reported by Bowmans, there will be a criminal prosecution.  De Lille will defend herself, as is her right. If the evidence is sufficiently compelling she will be convicted.  If it is not, she will be acquitted. She should devote her time now to preparing her defence, vacate office and leave the running of the city to Dan Plato, the Mayor-elect.  He has done the job before (after Helen Zille and before de Lille) and he is a safe pair of hands. The citizens are the priority; not de Lille and not the DA.

Douglas Gibson is a former opposition chief whip and ambassador to Thailand. His website is: