This time last year the DA had reason to be happy with their change of political fortunes. The local government elections of 2016 had seen it take leadership of coalitions or secure co-operation arrangements in Johannesburg, Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay (NMB) metros, in addition to Cape Town which they already held. The ANC polled just over 50 percent nationally. The possibility of the DA-led combination defeating the ANC, bringing its vote tally below 50 percent in national elections appeared realistic.
In the year that followed there have been a number of setbacks resulting from the DA’s failure to practise the skills and flexibility required to hold coalitions together, with conflict emerging especially in Nelson Mandela Bay. The result was that the DA endangered coalitions in all the metros, since the EFF threatened to withdraw support over alleged DA high handedness and the general complaint of failing to consult its allies. (See: https://www.dailymaverick.co.za/article/2017-09-06-op-ed-are-da-led-coalitions-sustainable-now-and-into-2019/#.WlxBjCOQ1cA).
In a coalition or even a loose alliance, it is unwise for the strongest party to simply push through policies or laws without consultation. If it wishes to hold the coalition or alliance together the stronger party needs to ensure that it does not take its partners for granted. It ought to avoid unilateral decisions if it expects its coalition partners to abide by these. They cannot be expected to simply fall into line. Such contempt is an inducement for other parties to break away. In NMB the mayor, Athol Trollip, did not see the necessity to consult when coalition parties said they had not seen his state of the city address before it was delivered. He said he was not obliged to show it to them. This illustrated a level of arrogance that is not conducive to working together with other parties in a common endeavour.
In NMB the divisions within the governing coalition centred on mayor Trollip and his relationship with the now-dismissed UDM deputy mayor Mongameli Bobani. The dismissal of Bobani was said to relate to a draft report of PricewaterhouseCoopers. To this day, the report has never been made public and has not been finalised. The deputy mayor is a public figure. How can reliance be placed on a draft report? Also, by keeping the report on which the DA relied under wraps, it concealed what the public needs to know.
Divisions within the DA’s own ranks have now emerged on a very intense basis. At the same time as the ANC is trying to recover from a heavily divided conference and replace its state president, Jacob Zuma, with the new ANC president, Cyril Ramaphosa, the DA is filling newspapers with daily reports of its own divisions, played out in public spats, leaked reports and multiple allegations against leaders.
There is a massive factional battle being waged in the Western Cape. Earlier in the year former leader, Helen Zille came close to being expelled after tweeting about enduring virtues of colonialism. She now has an ambiguous formal role in relation to the party, still premier but not in party structures. It is claimed that she still enjoys a lot of support amongst some sections of the DA, and influences decisions. This may bear a relation to the claims that there remains a clique of whites who still pull the strings in the DA.
Western Cape conflict now surrounds attempts to remove Patricia De Lille as mayor of Cape Town. The character of these divisions has not emerged clearly. The reasons given for her to be removed are multiple, but it is unclear on what basis a decision will actually be made.
On one level the allegations against De Lille refer to political divisions caused by her leadership style, as described by a committee under John Steenhuisen, the DA chief whip in Parliament and provincial leaders from other provinces who pronounce - in rather vague terms, from what has been leaked - on her conducting herself in a way that is not conducive to building the organisation. "Her leadership style has become extremely problematic for the successful functioning of both the administration and her caucus." (https://www.timeslive.co.za/sunday-times/news/2018-01-13-problematic-patricia-de-lille-to-defy-da-leadership/ )
There has been a range of allegations of impropriety on the part of De Lille, either corruption or irregularity on the part of her council team or others hired to do work, which she has allegedly attempted to cover up. There is a range of allegations relating to factionalism and favouring people who are relatives of those who are connected to De Lille.
These are the type of allegations that one is accustomed to reading in relation to the ANC. That these are emerging in relation to the DA indicates how access to public wealth provides opportunities for abuse, from which no party is immune. It also indicates that the DA may have put a lid over this for some time since it is unlikely that it started today. We know that Helen Zille’s sons were offered the opportunity to test products for a business they were starting through speedy access to the Western Cape government at a time when she was premier and questions have been raised about whether the agreement conformed to regulations (https://citizen.co.za/news/south-africa/1539747/zille-accused-of-pressurising-officials-to-boost-her-sons-business/ ).
More recently, former DA leader, Tony Leon, and former DA head of communications, Nick Cleland, have been paid by the City of Cape Town to conduct communications around the water crisis. (https://www.iol.co.za/weekend-argus/tony-leon-firm-runs-cape-town-water-campaign-12711981). A former leader of the party, like the sons of the former premier have a status that is not equal to that of other potential contenders, in terms of their access to those, from the DA, who may make decisions. They are viewed in a particular way by those in power. It does not mean the contract was illegal. But when a former leader seeks a contract it creates an inherent inequality in relation to other potential contractors who do not have a similar standing with the party running the council.
The current allegations against De Lille are contained in memoranda and a report or reports that have been leaked to the press, one being by legal firm Bowman Gilfillan. The Speaker of the Cape Town Council evoked outrage in the journalistic community when he asked News 24 to provide him with their source. (https://www.news24.com/SouthAfrica/News/no-journalist-or-media-organisation-should-ever-reveal-its-sources-sanef-20180112).
De Lille has engaged lawyers who have, apparently assembled a very bulky rebuttal of the allegations in the reports of Bowman Gilfillan and Steenhuisen. It may be that she answers and/or rebuts allegations in these reports since she claims, both reports contain inaccuracies. We do not know whether or not what is allegedly inaccurate go to the core of the reasons for her potential dismissal and on what basis the Federal Executive will make a decision. If some allegations are deemed irrelevant to the decisions their veracity will not necessarily be decided on and remain hanging as “dirt” that can be wielded against De Lille, whether or not that formed part of the decision.
The DA Fedex met on Sunday to deliberate and come to a decision on the matter. De Lille was not removed as mayor but will face disciplinary charges. She has, nevertheless, been stripped of some of her powers as mayor before the institution of the disciplinary process.
It appears from what has been said that the DA leadership may want to remove De Lille and - if that happens - it seems that De Lille will fight the decision in the courts. That will be very messy in the year preceding the 2019 elections. How damaging it will be depends on how long it takes to resolve litigation, what character resolution may take and how much support De Lille enjoys.
All of this has made for very bad press for the DA, as admitted by James Selfe, Fedex chair. The matter has dragged on for months and there has been public dressing down of De Lille by Selfe, leaking of claims of malgovernance and behaviour, ultimatums, postponements of the ultimatums and now ultimately the Fedex meeting, which has not finalised anything.
What emerges from what members of the public read about this episode is that the DA operates with a very centralised decision-making process. Whatever the experience of councillors in Cape Town may be De Lille’s fate will be decided by the Fedex.
What is unclear is whether the Fedex will have the time to read all the documentation that has been provided and be able to assess these adequately. Have they employed lawyers or are they going to do it themselves? How do they decide what is central to the decision and will that be with the consent of De Lille and is the DA constitution clear on this?
Is their decision a political decision, based on whether or not De Lille has lost confidence or is it because of wrongdoing? If it is a loss of confidence but De Lille has not committed any wrongdoing is a loss of confidence sufficient or does it not tell us something about those whose confidence she has lost? Are there not criteria independent of whether or not confidence is lost, that the DA applies to its leaders to assess whether or not they should remain in place?
Whatever happens to De Lille is part of a wider question of the fortunes of the DA. It is doing things that may squander the gains it made in the local government elections, at a time when the ANC may be en route to having a state president who is not the liability that Zuma was.
The DA speaks of itself as a federal party believing in decentralising decisions, yet its practice demonstrates extreme centralisation and authoritarianism. It says it does not conflate party and state and puts the needs of the public first, but its lack of transparency speaks otherwise.
What is clear is that the DA is highly factionalised, being torn apart in the midst of an emergency situation, where water may run dry in a few months’ time. Clearly, the DA is not able to manage its internal conflicts and this is undermining the interests of the public, whose basic needs are under threat.
How the DA conducts itself now when it is still an opposition party, ruling certain metros and one province gives us a glimpse of dangers that are not unlike those it condemns in the ANC. If the DA is so contemptuous of the public’s need for transparency, if it makes its internal decisions on so centralised a basis, what does this tell us of what the DA may be like should it ever rule the country?
Raymond Suttner is a scholar and political analyst. He is a professor attached to UNISA and Rhodes University. He served lengthy periods in prison and house arrest for underground and public anti-apartheid activities. His most recent book is Inside Apartheid’s prison reissued in 2017, by Jacana Media. He blogs at raymondsuttner.com and his twitter handle is @raymondsuttner
This article first appeared on Creamer Media’s website: polity.org.za