Opinionista Simon Grindrod 6 July 2018

Aunty Pat’s free political education lessons

That the DA couldn’t predict that Patricia de Lille would defend her rights and reputation is unfathomable.

There can be very few South Africans who are unaware of the ongoing conflict between Patricia de Lille and the Democratic Alliance. After De Lille survived a motion of no confidence in her and won two High Court cases, it seems party leader Mmusi Maimane now wishes to make a deal to try to salvage what remains of the DA’s battered reputation.

I don’t blame him. To get your backside squarely spanked in the town square by a 67-year-old-woman is no laughing matter.

At the outset it was clear to many that the barrage of faceless accusations against De Lille, beginning with a secret poison penletter to the DA hierarchy by arch-opponent JP Smith, was little more than an amateurish smear campaign by a rival faction.

It should have ended there had the party leader possessed the gravitas and experience to nip it in the bud. He had neither. Seven months later he is still being taught some manners by Aunty Pat.

Instead, Maimane chose to condone the campaign by his ally, Western Cape leader Bonginkosi Madikizela, to oust De Lille and steal the mayoral chain, using any trick in the book. By definition, this saga could not have gone on so long without the tacit approval of the party leadership.

The fact that the DA very early on offered her a seat in Parliament if she walked away should have alerted us to the fact that it had nothing of substance to go on. It is amazing that, even now, the DA has still failed to provide the detailed basis of the secret Steenhuisen report.

Selective transparency, selective rules and selective procedures. The lady is having none of it – and good for her!

Presumably, the DA thought that De Lille would simply walk away in the face of such an onslaught. Indeed, in December 2017 it gave her only 48 hours to do so – without so much as a charge sheet tabled.

They miscalculated. De Lille is neither a Peter Marais nor the late Gerald Morkel who did as they were told by their NP/DP bosses. That it couldn’t predict she would defend her rights and reputation is unfathomable.

However, the DA should be extremely grateful to De Lille for the free political education she has gifted it in the process of defending herself. The most important of her many contributions to its education include:

She has shaken the DA out of its complacency

For too long the party has cruised along smugly knowing that Jacob Zuma would do its job for it. It worked on the assumption that it had a monopoly on opposition politics and relied heavily on the fact that it was the default vote for the millions who couldn’t stomach him. It became accustomed to positive media. It served the voters a daily menu of sound bites, media stunts and holier-than-thou platitudes. Style over substance worked for the DA for a while. Its reliance on the ANC’s weaknesses, as opposed to its own strengths, continues. Voters want to vote for something, not against something.

She has tested the party’s internal procedures and commitment to clean governance

The DA, with all its money and legal firepower, has lost two High Court cases against De Lille with costs. Its party constitution has been found wanting, its federal executive’s legal commission has been exposed as improperly constituted. The fact that Fedex could expel a party member without requesting detailed evidence is shameful. That it has now taken to blaming the judges, not itself, for losing court cases is further proof of its desperation.

She has exposed the divisions in the DA for voters to see

They have always been there, but for many years the party has been extremely efficient at hiding them from the wider electorate. Such factions are based on policy differences, race, power and positions. The DA has never been any different from other parties in this regard. Having been highlighted, the party can now work on resolving them instead of papering over the serious cracks in unity.

By merit of her position, the matter has thrown a spotlight on the DA flagship administration in Cape Town

Residents are now questioning the delivery of the DA in terms of rates, tariffs and services. For the first time there will be no one else to blame for its failures and lapses. The voters are firmly holding the party to account, without accepting the tired game of blaming the ANC or the weather.

De Lille has drawn the honest scrutiny of the media on to the DA

The party has for a long time enjoyed very favourable press. The media is now reporting widely on the less savoury aspects of the party machine. Of course, negative press is being greeted with squeals of media bias and hidden agendas. Perhaps the DA can now take the opportunity for some introspection instead of accusing the media of bias when it doesn’t go its way?

She has highlighted the failure of Maimane’s centralised control strategy

A party proclaiming to be transparent and inclusive surely cannot operate a politburo-type central command structure? It certainly did not work in this case.

In my view, of all the gifts De Lille has generously laid at the DA’s door, the most precious is that of revealing the abject failure of the party leader and his colleagues to manage the party. If the DA were a public company the CEO, MD, and Exco would resign or be dismissed for negligence, mismanagement, brand damage and financial losses. The funders of the party should be asking serious questions about where their investment is going and the prospects for growth, let alone electoral success, in 2019.

Maimane has been tested by De Lille, his senior in every way, and has been found floundering, absent, contradictory and implausible. Voters will be asking: How can Maimane ever run a national government if he cannot even manage a city caucus?

It is possible that the DA could recover its pre-2014 polling numbers before 2019 but it will require brutal honesty and the will to act on the lessons Aunty Pat has so freely given them.

It is in the interests of South Africa that opposition politics is honest, healthy and strong. DM

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