Opinionista Steven Boykey Sidley 26 April 2018

The mystery of Patricia de Lille’s malfeasance

It came as a sort of creeping surprise to me that after the de Lille no-confidence vote I was unable to say with any specificity what she had actually done wrong. I was surprised because I spend a fair amount of time reading politics. How had this major political news story become so muddied by history and opinion and the mire of politics that its causes and catalysts had, at least for me, melted into an impenetrable fog?

So I turned to that great spewer of opinions, Facebook, and asked my friends if anyone knew what the real de Lille story was. It makes for interesting reading. It took about 10 seconds for the comments to start rolling in on the backs of multi-coloured biases. DA voters, never-DA voters, ex-D voters, DA officials, pundits, rumour-mongers, haters, and many befuddled citizens (like me). And plenty of heated exchanges.

But it was edifying and I think I’ve got it now.

There have been many accusations against de Lille in the past. Imperiousness! (not a crime, but still). Being nasty to minions! (ditto). Monarchic tendencies (yeah, well). Poor management (leadership does not require management skills, it requires, well, leadership). But as things tumbled into the vortex that concluded with her being flushed by a majority of the caucus, it seemed important to me to be able to write down her crimes (or at least those that would justify her forced exit) in a single sentence.

So here it is:

A certain DA official looked like she had done some bad stuff and de Lille aggressively blocked a DA investigation into it.

There is other stuff as well, but I think the blocking is the guts of it.

There you have it.

Which of course led to questions about why she tried so hard to block it. Which led to recriminations and finger pointing. Which led to some, um, outsize reactions and angry words which cannot be retracted. Which led to the no-confidence vote.

The DA has taken a hard line against both corruption and its taint – it has always been one of its strengths. So if this is all to be believed and revealed, then the sanction of De Lille was the right thing to do. But it begs a more important question, which is why it has been so difficult for the DA to have clearly stated its case on the de Lille issue, to have left even political pundits scratching their heads.

It seems as though the DA has a messaging problem. This is perplexing. The party has a stellar governing record. Its growth has been a textbook success story. The have a well-oiled political machine. They are the only party with a truly multi-racial voting base. (Yes, yes, I know, class ceilings and all of that. But if you compare the voting demographic of the EFF and the ANC and the DA, it is the DA that comes closest to the rainbow, by a long shot).

One of the reasons offered is that the revelations, at least the public ones, happened over the holiday season, when we are all nicely lubricated by other matters. But this doesn’t really wash, the party should have been more attuned to public confusion on this matter. There is at least one white middle class ex-DA supporter I know for whom the de Lille matter was the last straw, causing her to take the morally confused decision to vote for the EFF in a by-election. An extreme case, to be sure, but surely the party mandarins must be worried about the greater signal here, which is that the DA’s signal is lost in noise.

So here is my sidewalk suggestion for the party. Hire someone smarter to massage your messaging. Someone who talks simply and clearly about successes and missteps and without fear or favour or obfuscation or political spin. Someone who is trusted by South Africans. Who doesn’t believe that a ‘The Patricia de Lillie Matter: Frequently Asked Questions’ page on the DA website is a good communications strategy (it is there, check it out).

One wonders whether the views in the tiny bubble that is my Facebook page is a sample so fatally skewed that it portends little for the DAs continued growth and that de Lille issue is a matter of mere transience.

It is possible. But I wouldn’t bet on it. DM

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