A House Divided: A search for the politics and divisions that brought Cape Town to its knees
After delving into the rot at the Nelson Mandela Bay Metro, writer and researcher Crispian Olver has attempted to delve into the inner machinations of the DA-led City of Cape town, the behind-the-scenes political drama leading up to the city’s water crisis and it’s ‘Day Zero” in 2018 which ultimately cost Patricia de Lille her job.
De Lille has alleged that conservative members of the DA caucus in the city “used a cocktail of rich ratepayers, environmentalists, and heritage and planning regulations to prevent the development of public spaces for public good – in Clifton, the city centre, Woodstock, Salt River, Hout Bay, Rondebosch, Plumstead.
“The conservatives in the party will tell you that there is virtually no available land in Cape Town suitable to accommodate poorer people … Unpalatable as it is, the truth is that the DA-led City of Cape Town does not believe that integration is a priority. If it did, it would begin to bring coloured and black Capetonians who were forcefully removed under apartheid back into the city and its suburbs.”
I’m not so sure.
Even if conservative elements within the DA did oppose her ambitions, the mayor was far from blameless. De Lille broke the power of the administration and ran the city by executive fiat.
She targeted “obstructive” spatial planners and cast aside “constraining” planning instruments such as the urban edge and the CTSDF, yet planners and their tools were precisely what she needed to deracialise the city and drive spatial integration – initiatives like the social-housing project in Salt River were initially the brainchild of city planners. And the city’s housing programme seems to have collapsed after the liquidation of the housing department, setting back housing delivery in the city by years.
In addition, I couldn’t discern an obvious or credible element of spatial integration in most of the catalytic projects that De Lille tried so hard to ram through. The clearest effort was in the Foreshore project, yet that intention was ultimately undone by very poor tender execution – another symptom of the administrative weakness to which she had contributed. And even though a portion of the proceeds from Maiden’s Cove were to be earmarked for affordable housing, it was unclear where it would be developed.
De Lille’s administration did take steps towards formalising an inclusive housing policy involving consultations with industry and civic organisations that would mandate property developments to include some affordable housing and provide incentives to do so.
Yet it did so only late into her second term: the mayoral committee adopted a concept document on inclusionary housing in September 2018 – the month before she resigned. In any case, Mayor Dan Plato and his administration seem to have picked up where she left off, which contradicts her claim that the pushback against her was all about stopping spatial integration.
Once created, political factions have a way of self-perpetuating by cloaking themselves in justifications that often have little to do with the initial rift.
Was the conflict within the DA perhaps less about policy itself and more about which economic interests would benefit from it?
I’d been hoping to find out but was unable to pierce that veil, and this remains an open question. I don’t know what deals were being done behind the scenes, what charities or political programmes were being supported, what rights were being traded or granted elsewhere in the city. But, on the face of it, the catalytic projects appeared to be more about developers’ interests.
What is clear is that in the process, political capital was squandered, opportunities missed and, ultimately, public interest suffered. Patricia de Lille and her office were unwilling or unable to perform the function leaders are supposed to: bring conflicting constituencies around the table and find a way to align, or at the very least balance, their interests.
For example, some developers told me that, desperate to find a resolution to the standoff with Reclaim the City and Ndifuna Ukwazi, they had been ready to strike an agreement around an inclusionary housing policy, but the city never stepped up to the plate and played a brokering role.
Successful leaders inspire, convince and build coalitions around a common vision, rather than try to impose their will. This is a difficult and frustrating task, which requires patience. But it’s a task that’s essential to generate sound initiatives, advance them and make sure that they endure – and not only because of the mayor’s or any other leader’s strength of will, which only goes so far and lasts for so long, but because a broad constituency supporting them has been created. Most of the catalytic projects were left in tatters, mainly as a result of flawed conception, political interventions and hubris.
In a democracy, wielding executive power alone ultimately generates an equal amount of pushback, regardless of how much authority the law provides. For Patricia de Lille, the pushback came from within her own party and her own administration, as well as from civic organisations that felt ignored.
You can choose to lament that pushback and believe in conspiracies: this is the road that Patricia de Lille seems to have chosen. The alternative is to reframe zero-sum games to align interests, and work towards finding common ground; and, in so doing, unleash collective power.
In the end, De Lille’s efforts to push for social and spatial integration failed. But neither side in the ugly spat that unfolded within the DA covered themselves in glory. What role had the party played in this sorry rift, and what share of responsibility did it carry? Regardless of De Lille’s shortcomings, the DA was not blameless, which raised questions about the party’s own future – and by extension, the future of South African politics.
South Africa needs a competitive democracy in which the party in power is held in check by strong opposition parties. Even though I’ve never supported the DA, I feel sad for where they’ve ended up.
Under Helen Zille, the party made a really good attempt to build a different political model. For well over a decade, they ran the City of Cape Town along fairly solid lines, even if they at times fumbled matters. And for a moment under De Lille and Maimane, it looked as if the party was at last becoming more racially inclusive and would genuinely be able to put the different parts of Cape Town together in a way that worked for everyone.
But that vision came adrift. The unification project failed to find a middle ground, and more conservative elements in the DA weren’t forced to accept a strategic compromise that would build a truly integrated city.
They considered the merger between the DA and the ID as a takeover, one that would see the newcomers adopt their views, their values and their internal systems. Convinced of their righteousness, they seemed unable to make space for some element of osmosis. They certainly weren’t prepared for a feisty and independent Patricia de Lille, who ultimately refused to toe their line.
Caught up in their own internal battles, the DA leaders in the city failed to properly manage the water crisis, faltering on the very ground they claimed as their own: administrative efficiency. In spite of the DA’s desire to pitch itself high on the good-governance totem pole, I found that the administration of Cape Town, while largely corruption free, had been left wanting. The “growth coalition” between city and business leaders, while preferable to the “rent-seeking coalition” that I encountered in Nelson Mandela Bay, is unlikely in itself to resolve gaping socioeconomic inequality and redress spatial exclusion. It’s also unlikely to expand the party’s electoral base much further.
Both in Nelson Mandela Bay and in Cape Town, the losers were the poor.
In Cape Town, the DA’s conservative funding base still seemed to call the shots. Maybe this is simply the way that power works, a cosy relationship between money and public office, part of the grubby transactional nature of politics. As Stephen Watson prophetically wrote in the conclusion to his collection of stories, A city Imagined, ‘metropolitan politics will doubtless persist, here as elsewhere in South Africa, as the public domain (though lately privatised) of the seven deadly sins, avarice chief amongst them’.
The bruising political battle in Cape Town echoed the factional warfare I’d observed within the ANC. Perhaps the “high risk” that the city administration had feared when rejecting my research application was the discovery that, in the end, the DA has not entirely escaped the challenges that blight the ruling party.
Yet the high risk materialised on its own, as the DA’s dirty laundry was ultimately aired in public, severely denting the squeaky clean image it had been trying so hard to project. And once that dirty laundry was out, the party leaders weren’t above fighting a public-opinion battle by pushing their narrative through media leaks or feeding me information that had been hitherto inaccessible. I can’t exclude the possibility that, just as the clean-up operation in Nelson Mandela Bay became part of factional battles, my research became in a small way a potential tool in the DA’s internal battle.
What does this mean for our national politics? The DA’s alliance with Patricia de Lille’s ID in 2010 was the party’s second attempt to widen its political base through a merger. And just like the first, short-lived one with the NNP, it ended in a divorce. This raises questions over the DA’s ability to expand beyond its current relatively narrow base.
To inch the ANC out of power at the local level, the party has entered into marriages of convenience in several metros around the country. These opportunistic alliances have at times been with partners that have little in common with the DA’s platform and outlook, making for odd bedfellows. Some of these coalitions have unravelled, including in Nelson Mandela Bay.
Yet the ebb and flow of coalition politics is most likely what awaits South Africa, as the ANC loses ground and faces the loss of its absolute majority.
The challenge isn’t whether one or another party gains power, but whether the fractious world of city coalitions can overcome the insidious influence of old and new money, and still advance the social agenda that the country so badly needs to bridge its devastating faultlines. DM
A House Divided is published by Jonathan Ball.