Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

The DA is now very much a part of the world of real politics where the exercise of state power and the access to public resources and jobs that it brings enter into and shape party dynamics and interfere with political principles.

The DA is no stranger to factionalism. Like every political party it has always had factions and caucuses in which members club together to get their woman or man into a position of influence, with the prospect of getting ahead themselves at some point in the game.

Just ask how young upstart Tony Leon in 1989 won candidacy of the prestigious Houghton seat after the retirement of Helen Suzman through a recruitment campaign of members and friends, none of whom lived in the area.

The DA is also a party that is stranger than most. Unlike the ANC or the National Party, in which people came together around a strong, shared vision, the DA has a potted genealogy. While it has its roots in the Suzman-Leon white English-speaking liberal tradition, it is a party that has gathered its other parts around it mostly through historical accident, essentially as it out-competed others and became the only viable opposition to the ANC.

It is a party that has gathered its … parts around it mostly through historical accident

The blending together of these varied parts — from old Afrikaner Nats to old Pan Africanists like Patricia de Lille — has made the DA more vulnerable to factionalism than most. Add this to a small but significant younger black caucus, whose common interest in the DA stems mostly from their opposition to the ANC, and it’s little surprise that the DA has had a hard time of it defining its stance on tricky issues such as support for black economic empowerment and racial quotas.

But one thing the DA has never been confused about is its principal difference to the ANC: a commitment to clean government and zero tolerance of corruption. Clean government, not liberal or quasi-liberal principles, has been the reason why growing numbers of people have voted for it, particularly in traditional ANC strongholds like Port Elizabeth and Gauteng.

For the most part, the DA has done a good job of enforcing clean government.

In the City of Johannesburg, mayor Herman Mashaba has fired two of his most senior party colleagues who were found in forensic investigations to have engaged in nepotism or misuse of council funds.

One place, though, where Mashaba has feared to tread has been his relationship with the EFF on which he relies to remain in power. In more than one instance, Mashaba has looked the other way to what should be looked at more closely as possible EFF corruption.

In Cape Town, mayor De Lille’s head is on the block. In this case, it is clear that both factionalism and careerism are also at play. De Lille has for some time been at odds with the power brokers in the party, who, apart from Mmusi Maimane, are not coincidentally drawn mostly from its traditional core.

There are political considerations, though. De Lille is popular in Cape Town, especially in the coloured community, whose votes to hold Cape Town are critical. And she has a long and distinguished history of service.

But the reports on De Lille’s conduct — two of them — are damning. She is accused of covering up corruption in the tender for the bus rapid transport system. She is also accused of an astounding litany of poor governance, nepotism, undue influence and the rest.

The DA federal executive last weekend backed off and didn’t suggest to its Cape Town caucus that it fire her, taking instead a longer route of a two-month inquiry by its federal law committee. It does appear that their strategy is to be careful rather than soft on De Lille, fearing a protracted legal battle if they don’t allow full and due process.

But if even half of what has been alleged is true, De Lille will definitely have to go, no matter the consequences to the party.