Opinionista Ian Von Memerty 19 January 2018

De Lille: The DA opportunity

The ongoing Patricia de Lille saga, if handled carefully by the DA, gives it a real opportunity to underscore its claim that it is the party that will not tolerate “corruption and abuse of power”.

Patricia de Lille has always punched above her political weight and been consistently effective in doing so. At Codesa, and in Parliament before she moved into the Cape Town mayoral office, her opinion was often sought out and quoted ahead of the official opposition at the time. She was a fearless fighter against corruption, and her role in uncovering the Arms Deal was a truly national service.

I have a clear memory of her at the final election debate of 2004 (I think) and leaning forward and pointing a finger at Gwede Mantashe across the table. Her words were something to this effect, “Comrade Mantashe, remember that the truth will always come out. It may take 20 years but the truth will always come out.” And now we are about to discover if she was right.

But the ongoing De Lille saga, if handled carefully by the DA, gives it a real opportunity to underscore its claim that it is the party that will not tolerate “corruption and abuse of power”. If De Lille is proved guilty as charged it will have proven itself to be the party that acts against its own officials, no matter how powerful or visible they are. And in doing so they will have differentiated themselves from the ANC.

So facts first – De Lille has been accused of, to paraphrase the DA’S charge sheet:

  • Splitting the caucus with divisive leadership;
  • Replacing experienced officials with those “loyal to De Lille”;
  • Centralising powers and undercutting decentralised committees;
  • Manipulating appointments of senior management;
  • Overstepping her authority and interfering with tender processes;
  • Risking the loss of senior and skilled technical staff; and
  • Maladministration and governance irregularities.

With all that clearly laid out, it was fascinating to see the first three Daily Maverick articles on the DA’s decision to charge De Lille formally by the Party’s Federal Legal Commission. Three political commentators immediately weighed in, each of them taking major swings at the party, and all of them seemingly giving De Lille a free pass. They did not address the actual reasons given in the DA decision as laid out above, and all of them asserted that it must be a case of factional politics, without giving any supporting facts.

Let’s begin with the normally reliable Raymond Suttner, who made some sweeping claims. I quote: “Divisions within the DA’s own ranks have now emerged on a very intense basis, played out in public spats, leaked reports and multiple allegations against leaders”. I read his article three times and I could not find one fact to back up these assertions.

Facts:

  • De Lille and some other Cape Town officials including Melissa Whitehead and the (now former) city manager have been accused of major wrongdoing. They are being investigated – that is not evidence of any kind of division.
  • The accused have fought back via the press and De Lille has claimed “irregularities” in the Bowan, Gilfillan and Steenhuisen reports – that is not evidence of a DA split.

I don’t claim to know everything about this case, but so far I have not read of one major player in the DA who has come out in support of De Lille. So where is the split? The DA is taking action against one of its most popular public officials in the last 18 months before a national election – surely that is evidence that they not practising factional politics, or worse, political expediency.

Then Marianne Merten did a one-sided spin job on the investigation that would do justice to a hurricane. The most jaw-dropping quote: But the [bad] governance stuff, particularly around R36-million related to the MyCiTi bus tender and the Foreshore Freeway Project, has come in handy at this stage to shift the focus from internal factionalism to the DA’s publicly proclaimed drive for good governance.”

Like Suttner, she doesn’t base assertions about the supposed factionalism on facts, but leans heavily on innuendo. As far as I know the city officials who have been accused are not DA political appointees – so what action could the DA Fedex take against them?

Let’s change the perception about the politics for a moment. What if it was a charismatic ANC mayor who had been accused of covering up a R36-million corruption scandal? If the ANC did not act against that mayor, they would rightly be accused of tolerating corruption and bad governance. If they did act they would be lauded for taking steps at reversing a trend that has eaten away at the very heart of the ANC. Would Merten prefer that the DA ignore the allegations against the mayor?

Last, there was Rebecca Davis, who wrote an article about De Lille possibly being the DA scapegoat for the Cape Town water crisis. The DA is not charging De Lille because of the water crisis or her handling of it. What they are doing is alleging that her mis-administration and divisive leadership have made the handling of the water crisis more difficult and so are removing her from that committee along with her other responsibilities. De Lille has not been charged with mishandling the water crisis, and the party has not claimed that she will be. Davis (and De Lille) wants us to think this is about the water crisis; it may be – but she doesn’t give any facts to back up her assertions.

So, in rebuttal. How would getting rid of De Lille – before the water crisis is solved – help the DA? Whoever inherits De Lille’s responsibilities for drought management will still have the unenviable job of trying to mitigate the terrible consequences of this natural disaster. The DA will still own and have to deal with the drought and its effects on Cape Town and the Western Cape. What is the benefit to the party of removing the mayor from the water management team if she is doing a great job? No party going into a national election would willingly put themselves in the position of playing internal games when any minor decision about a natural disaster could lead to major political fallout at the ballot box.

Davis quotes De Lille as saying that “any change in leadership would have severe negative impacts on the progress that has been made”. In that sentence alone she proves the DA’s assertion of her dictatorial leadership style, a sort of Trumpian “I alone can fix it”. The party obviously believes that she is more of a hindrance than a help, and they are prepared to stand behind that and take the political risk.

Now let’s not be naïve here – of course there is factionalism in the DA. It is a political organisation and I defy anyone to find any political party in any country that does not have factions. And I am sure that there are factions within the DA that have been looking for a way to “get” De Lille. But all three writers choose to hint at factions without giving any details, while the very real “bad governance” issues that the mayor is charged with are glossed over and skated around.

For all the faction-based allegations made by these three writers, if De Lille is found to be guilty of the charges of tender manipulation and governance irregularities then it is she, herself, who will have given her enemies the means to take her out. As we read daily, one of the greatest threats to our country is institutional corruption, which means the DA has no choice but to act regarding the allegations against De Lille.

If De Lille falls because of her own actions then her critics and opponents within the DA will undoubtedly celebrate. But if she falls it will be because of what she has done. If she is cleared of all charges she will emerge stronger than ever and those same internal enemies will be weakened.

Which brings me to my central premise. If the DA plays this investigation by the book (as I think they have done so far), and then plays open cards on its findings, they will score major political points. To take action against a mayor who led the party to a two-thirds majority in the last election is a huge political risk. The DA has grown more consistently than any other political party since 1999, both in voting numbers and in diversity. It (and many of the factions within it) must believe that taking on this fight is necessary and is going to be worth it. Surely that is what we should be asking. Why is the DA doing this if it is politically dangerous?

If they are wrong about De Lille, they could pay a heavy price. If they are right, they may pay a smaller price, but they could also really score. But here is the truly dangerous option that the party could have taken – if the DA is right about De Lille and then did nothing then they really would be the ANC lite, where political expediency is more important than accountability. And that would be a serious loss for them. By taking on this battle they are setting themselves up as the corruption-free and delivery-based party – if it emerged they had not acted against serous allegations, that major platform would be eroded dangerously.

There may be legitimate questions and theories about how they could have done things differently in the investigation. But there can be no doubt that they had to act. It is going to be a fundamental issue for the country on how all our political parties deal with corruption among their leaders and membership, and corruption is bound to happen.

If commentators distract from that central and vital issue by playing on racial, divisive and factional issues, they are pulling focus from the most important issues: Is there corruption in a party? And how did that party respond? This is an issue of vital national interest. Factions, racial divide (look at the number of paler ANC members who broke with Zuma), and perceived agendas will happen in every internal battle of every party , that is inevitable. But those are long-term, ongoing social issues, whereas corruption is a clear and present danger.

So what is the real win for the DA? By taking action against alleged corruption, misadministration and bad governance against a major DA player, they can then claim to be the champion of what is now a vital national fight. And if the DA wins and De Lille loses it will be an opportunity that could reap them rich political rewards. They need to be able to sell that story to the public and the electorate – and that is their real challenge. Their message should be, “We investigate and fight corruption and bad governing at the highest level – no one else does.”

There at least two sides to this story – surely we should be seriously looking at all sides before we start conspiracy theories without supporting facts. There will always be differing opinions, thankfully, but they should not blind us to the facts. The DA had to act – and if they win this case, they win. Not De Lille, no matter how many counterpunches this veteran political brawler throws. DM

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