It wasn’t that long ago when Patricia de Lille’s political capital was sky high. She was beating off death threats after vocalising uncomfortable truths at ANC officials implicated in the infamous Arms Scandal while serving as the chief whip of the PAC. Nelson Mandela called her his favourite opposition politician and she used floor-crossing legislation (which, ironically, she had been vociferously against) to begin her own party, the Independent Democrats, while retaining her own seat in Parliament until the 2004 election.
While De Lille was vocal during her final days with the PAC, her importance and recent influence on just about anything has been minimal – despite the four seats the ID holds in Parliament. Nowadays, De Lille hardly exists outside the odd TV interview while in Western Cape, her party – alongside the ANC – has been hammered by the DA. In the 2009 election the ID only hauled in 4.5% of Western Cape votes – slightly more than half of what it managed in 2005. Nationally, less than 1% of South Africa voted for the party. Basically, an organisation that never really did very well started doing even worse.
The Independent Democrats are going to be swallowed up, but only completely after the next election in 2014 so that the ID doesn’t lose its seats in the national assembly (as floor-crossing is no longer an option). And while this may be the death of the ID, it could be a superbly crafted rebirth for Patricia de Lille.
De Lille is no fool and saw her tiny ship sinking. While the benefit for the DA in this coalition may be minimal, the propensity for her personal growth when she walks in as a South African political bigwig is enormous. It is doubtful it will make any difference to the vote the DA pulls in – perhaps a few leftover De Lille PAC credentials will bolster a small fraction of the electorate, but it will be negligible. Consolidating the coloured vote doesn’t sound necessary when the ID took such a tiny portion of it last year anyway. The real opportunity here lies for De Lille to return to prominence, and she’s gone looking in the right place.
There are approximately 5 million coloured folks living in South Africa. If we go with a population of 50 million translating into just less than 17 million voters, come election time the ratio translates to around 1.7 million coloured votes for which the ANC, ID and the DA are competing. Unfortunately for the ID, many of those voters swung from the ANC to the DA with the ID’s 2004 election result proving no more than a speedbump.
De Lille’s target audience has, for the most part, moved on to the DA. Instead of trying to woo them back, she’s adopted an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” attitude and followed them across (and I doubt it’s because of Helen Zille’s message of an open society for all). Looking from outside, the only real beneficiary of this merger is De Lille herself, with her depleted influence standing an excellent chance of renewal as she moves back to the forefront of South African politics.
Her statement included the revelation that the merger process began on 17 May 2009. If anyone remembers, that’s less than a month after a very disappointing election result for the ID and the writing was deeply etched into the wall.
De Lille will join the DA as an ordinary member without having a position specifically reserved for her. When votes come up for positions of authority in the party though, expect De Lille to be vocal about just where in the party she is aiming. I cannot imagine that this smart and driven woman is aiming to replace Wilmot James or Diane Kohler Barnard in positions that no one outside the party really cares about. It will be Athol Trollip (the DA’s leader in the national assembly), Dan Plato (Mayor of Cape Town) who will be looking over their shoulders. Perhaps even Helen Zille ought to be wary of the ID leader’s ambitions – less so as head of the party and more so as Western Cape Premier.
Quite frankly, you’ve got to admire De Lille’s good and ballsy politics. Even if it’s at the expense of her own organisation.