Mayor of Cape Town Patricia de Lille at the Western Cape High Court. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES
Mayor of Cape Town Patricia de Lille at the Western Cape High Court. Picture: ESA ALEXANDER/SUNDAY TIMES

The DA continues to reel as the Patricia de Lille saga shows no sign of being resolved any time soon. At this point it’s a drama that seems likely to end up in the constitutional court.

The high court in Cape Town on Tuesday restored De Lille to her mayoral post, pending the conclusion of her application to set aside the DA’s decision to terminate her party membership. It ruled that the interests of citizens would be best served by avoiding "musical chairs" in the city council.

The court was of the view that any other decision would create further uncertainty in the running of the city, especially given that both the DA and De Lille are not shy to litigate.

"We are genuinely concerned for the harm [De Lille’s] loss of office has for the people of Cape Town. The city has lost the services of its first citizen and members of the mayoral committee," judge Patrick Gamble said.

He pointed out that there may well be litigation beyond De Lille’s review application, and the matter could end up in the constitutional court. However, the court noted that De Lille’s relationship with the party "has all but come to an end".

Natasha Mazzone, deputy chair of the DA federal council, says: "It is unfortunate that Ms De Lille continues to put her individual interests above those of the citizens of Cape Town by using legal technicalities to cling to power.

"It is inconceivable that the DA would be expected to work with a mayor who has lost the confidence of two-thirds of the caucus that she leads on no less than two occasions ... De Lille will now act in only a ceremonial role, with substantive governance decisions to be taken by the DA caucus in the interests of the people of Cape Town while [she enjoys] the benefits of a mayoral salary at rate-payer expense."

De Lille says it is up to the DA "to make a decision whether we continue to fight ... or we put the people of Cape Town first.

"For the sake of good governance and the people of Cape Town, we must now begin to find a solution to this long, protracted fight between myself and the DA ... this is not about me; it’s about fighting for fairness and equality," she says.

The matter has been handled so untransparently that the voters don’t know what is going on ... The DA now looks like the ANC with its factions
Amanda Gouws

De Lille had approached the court to challenge the DA’s decision to rescind her membership after she told radio station 702 that she would leave the party after clearing her name. She asked the court to restore her membership pending the application to set aside the DA’s "automatic cessation clause", under which membership ceases once a party member publicly declares his or her intention to resign and/or publicly does so. The review application will be heard on May 25.

The matter has distracted the party from its core business of governing in Cape Town, a city still in the midst of a severe water crisis. It has also given the ANC and EFF more ammunition with which to pick apart the DA’s carefully rehearsed maxim of nonracialism.

The DA’s detractors say the handling of the De Lille matter proves that black people in the party are sidelined and treated unfairly. They argue that senior white DA leaders such as Helen Zille have got away with relatively serious transgressions in the past, which have hurt the party’s image.

The De Lille saga will almost certainly affect the party’s performance in coming elections. The DA’s messaging on key policy matters has been somewhat overshadowed by constant internal squabbles, which are likely to put off many voters.

Mazzone concedes this, saying: "It is no secret that the DA has suffered ... damage because of this issue due to the lack of information presented to our voters."

Stellenbosch University political analyst professor Amanda Gouws says the DA will certainly suffer at the polls as a result.

"The matter has been handled so untransparently that the voters don’t know what is going on," says Gouws. "Nobody knows what De Lille has done to receive this treatment. The DA now looks like the ANC with its factions. De Lille will take the coloured vote with her."

What it means

The DA’s handling of the De Lille matter is likely to hurt the party at the polls

So determined was the DA to get rid of De Lille that it chose to take a short cut and deny her due process, including a fair hearing at which she could state her side of the story.

The party has levelled a number of charges against De Lille, including maladministration, corruption, and ignoring misconduct and tender irregularities. These are, however, still untested.

What is clear is that plans to remove De Lille as Cape Town mayor were in place as far back as 2013. At the time, it was claimed that De Lille ruled "with an iron fist" and did not trust some council officials, which made her unpopular in council chambers. Speculation was that she would be in line for redeployment to the Northern Cape, where she would be the DA’s candidate for the premiership.

Fast-forward to 2018: De Lille states in her court papers that the party had no interest in getting rid of her as a member, and that its leadership had indicated it would arrange for her to serve in another high office, for instance as an MP.

She says the push to remove her is partly motivated by political differences, and "partly because of personality clashes and criticism of my leadership style — a perception among some is that I behave in an autocratic manner. But mostly [it is] because of the political ambitions and aspirations of [a DA faction that wants] the mayoral position."