Opinionista Mark Rountree 25 April 2019

Never underestimate Patricia de Lille

History has shown that small parties, and even lone politicians such as Helen Suzman during the dark days of apartheid, can make an enormous difference even if they are lonely voices in the political wilderness. Similarly, underestimating Patricia de Lille and her Good party would be a mistake.

There is a lot of misinformation about the roles of smaller parties in a multi-party democracy. To understand their importance, we can simply look at our country’s history for a valuable lesson.

Anti-apartheid activist Helen Suzman was a member of the United Party, the main opposition against apartheid’s National Party. Disappointed that her party did not offer any real alternative to the ruling Nationalists’ plans, she in 1959 resigned from the official opposition to help form the Progressive Party, a party that rejected racial discrimination and advocated equal opportunities for all.

Using her access to information and the media in this new untethered role, Suzman was able to blow the whistle and expose apartheid’s cruelties. She worked to improve prison conditions for anti-apartheid activists and also campaigned against gender discrimination; in particular for rights for African women. In her fight against apartheid’s influx control laws, she became an early advocate of what we now refer to as spatial justice.

Suzman’s Progressive Party grew and eventually subsumed the United Party from which she had resigned. Later her party became known as the Democratic Party. Eleven years ago, in a cruelly ironic merger with the remnants of the National Party, the party was rebranded as the present-day Democratic Alliance.

I was fortunate to meet Helen Suzman in her later years. Despite her age, she remained refreshingly outspoken, independent and entirely intolerant of intolerance.

During her career, characterised by continuous attack and threat from a white, male-dominated political arena, she was twice nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. Mandela described her as a courageous woman and “undoubtedly the only real anti-apartheid voice in Parliament”. Mandela appointed her to the first electoral commission in 1994, where she was finally able to oversee an election based on universal franchise.

During the apartheid era, a minister replied to one of Suzman’s parliamentary questions saying that she asked these questions “just to embarrass South Africa overseas”. Her response was that “it is not my questions that embarrass South Africa; it is your answers”. Forty years after Suzman’s Progressive Party was formed, another woman in Parliament was accused of being unpatriotic and embarrassing the country as a consequence of her questions for the ruling party.

This time it was anti-apartheid activist Patricia de Lille, who Mandela described as his “favourite opposition politician”. In 1999 she called for an investigation into alleged Arms Deal corruption that implicated Tony Yengeni, Schabir Shaik and Jacob Zuma. Yengeni and Shaik were later convicted, but Jacob Zuma has so far avoided prosecution and was able to later become the president.

The Progressive Party was formed in 1959 and its lone voice in Parliament was a principled woman who could not abide by the ruling or main opposition’s lack of commitment to equal rights, non-racialism and the achievement of equal opportunities for all.

In 2019, 60 years later, we find that history is repeating itself. In 2018, disillusioned by the DA’s lack of commitment to tackling the legacy of apartheid, De Lille resigned from the official opposition party to start Good, a new movement focused on the achievement of justice in South Africa.

De Lille was accused of corruption, but when she asked for an open investigation of these allegations or appealed to the courts to compel the DA to provide evidence of their allegations, the DA lost three consecutive court cases. The High Court awarded costs to De Lille for her troubles.

The DA caucus also launched a motion of no confidence against the former Cape Town mayor because she appealed for relief from the proposed water tariffs for large families and for households already saving water.

The DA accused her of being “financially reckless” and said that it could not otherwise cover the city’s costs for water. Those statements were proved to be untrue in March 2019 when international rating agency Moody’s confirmed a R4.4-billion over-recovery on water costs in 2018 due to the very high tariff charges.

What many people do not realise is that, because costs were based on four people a household, lower-income areas were unjustly penalised, as these neighbourhoods typically have larger households — and shared (backyarder rentals) premises mean there are typically more than four people linked to each water meter. They have thus paid more for water, per litre, than many high-income homes.

Today, many voters are feeling confused. Suzman famously advised that “if you don’t know what to do, go and look for the principle.” DM

Mark Rountree is a scientist, water resource specialist and accidental politician. He is currently the National Policy Officer for Good: www.forgood.org.za

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