You strike a rock I have always been an activist. I will die an activist. Cape Town is where I started
Eight years is a long time in politics, especially when it comes to Patricia de Lille. The jubilation of her DA wedding has long evaporated, and the party has discovered that when you strike this woman . . .
● The only untidy thing in Patricia de Lille’s mayoral office is a stack of files piled on a round table. There are also a few gaps between the photographs hung neatly on the walls. She picks up a framed picture from where it had been lying face down on the pile and shows it to us. It is a photo of herself with DA leader Mmusi Maimane, his arm around her shoulders. It has been removed from her wall of fame, where it used to hang alongside pictures of De Lille with Barack Obama, the Dalai Lama, Mariah Carey and others.
The demoted photograph is a clear sign that the DA’s once convenient marriage to De Lille has failed, following her suspension in October from party activities after allegations of mismanagement in the city
De Lille, whose mayoral chain evidently hasn’t blunted her streetfighter instincts, warned the DA from the start of the disciplinary process against her that she would go to court if necessary.
In her submissions to the party on Wednesday, De Lille hit back at a motion of no confidence that was passed against her the previous week, calling the allegations unnamed, unspecified and lacking in detail.
This is a woman who rose to prominence as a tough negotiator more than 25 years ago, as head of the PAC delegation during South Africa’s constitutional talks, and who went on to play a major role in exposing the arms deal corruption. She was never simply going to bow out of the ring.
Campaigner from the Karoo
Born in Beaufort West, De Lille grew up to be an Africanist and working-class leader. She did not seem a natural match with the DA — it was like pairing a loud-mouthed suffragette and a stiff-upper-lipped Victorian gentleman. But the passion she brought to their union was promising at first. Both stood to gain: the DA would get more Cape Town votes; De Lille would get the power to bring about real change.
“When I was an opposition MP for 15 years, I would think about what to say today,” says De Lille, 67. “When you are in government, you think about what to do today. You have the satisfaction of seeing results.”
She became mayor in 2011 after serving less than a year in the Western Cape executive under premier Helen Zille, who had wooed the Independent Democrats leader into the DA. They still meet every month, says De Lille. “I could see myself living out the DA’s values at the time: redress, reconciliation, delivery and diversity. I remember saying to Helen Zille: ‘These are the things I fought for in the struggle against apartheid.’ ”
Her energy — she routinely works 16 hours a day — and no-holds-barred style are legendary, giving rise to speculation that the ANC and EFF are lining up as suitors following her rupture with the DA.
On top of her work, her efforts to clear her name now consume all her personal time and she no longer plays golf on Sunday mornings.
“I’m putting 120% effort into this,” says De Lille, whose eyes show a fatigue at odds with her animated gestures. “This is my fight with the DA. We are all equal before the law. Just give me a fair process.”
Last month she held more than 25 community meetings, typically at night.
“We have been talking about land invasions and trying to find solutions together. This is better than communities going to the streets with protests and destruction.”
Despite her engagements and promises they persist. This week the streets of Mitchells Plain were on fire with violent protests around service delivery.
When we arrive De Lille greets us with a hug, as she does everyone.
“I’ve got this thing of hugging everyone,” she says. “At the international jazz festival, I bumped into [Prescan’t ident Cyril] Ramaphosa and I hugged him. Then everyone on Twitter starts speculating I’m going to the ANC.
“Two weeks later I was invited by the EFF to speak at Mama Winnie’s memorial. They knew I’d been close to her so they asked me, but then everyone says I’m going to the EFF.”
When De Lille broke away from the PAC to form the Independent Democrats during a floor-crossing window in parliament, it looked as though she had a clear political trajectory. Now her future is up in the air.
“I would like to plan my future but I cannot even get to that point until I’ve been able to clear my name and reputation, which have been publicly smeared with allegations of corruption. It doesn’t matter where I go, to another political party or civil society, I make a decision until I’ve cleared this cloud hanging over my head.”
De Lille, who has had cancer of the larynx, has a distinctive voice that has got plenty of time on the airwaves recently. She has also turned to Twitter to contest the DA’s allegations against her.
Battle of the heavyweights
After the vote of no confidence on April 25 she posted a photo of herself in boxing gloves on Twitter with the words: “Next round! Let’s go!” She had posed in front of a newspaper poster saying: “Don’t let racists speak for you.”
The gloves were a gift and the idea came from a staff member. De Lille says: “The way I see it, you win one round and lose one round. I want to get to that knockout stage to clear my name.”
She may be on the back foot, but she still has a powerful punch that could harm the DA. “Every day I get thousands of messages of support from across the country,” she says.
Her husband, Edwin, and four huskies at home, her children Carmen and Allistair, and her staff at the office provide great support. De Lille still draws strength from her late father, a teacher who taught her about African pride and who was her first political hero (Robert Sobukwe was the second).
Another supporter is Archbishop Emeritus Desmond Tutu, who had called her earlier in the day to offer encouragement. De Lille has also taken Tutu’s photo off her office wall — not to hide like Maimane’s, but to hang up at home.
De Lille’s opponents come at her from both ends of the political spectrum: criticising her either for lurching from one community crisis to another and not delivering better services, or for not paying enough attention to the interests of the affluent. The water crisis is an example.
Dry white season in the Cape
The crippling drought presented Cape Town with a glaring challenge.
As mayor, De Lille did a great deal to raise awareness about saving water, seeking advice from the World Bank and former New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, among others.
Some analysts question whether she has surrounded herself with the wrong people, particularly after appointments such as that of ex-ANC councillor Loyiso Nkohla, notorious for dumping faeces across Cape Town to highlight the problem of poor sanitation.
But De Lille feels the campaign to oust her is driven primarily by resistance to transformation in the DA rather than her track record in the Mother City.
“I wanted to take the city to the next level of change, so I needed to plan differently, to change the methodology,” she says.
“That’s when we came with the city’s organisational development and transformation plan, and that’s when things started to go wrong.
“I had quite a lot of resistance from the old guard in the DA but finally I got it adopted by council. Lots of people were not happy. They wanted Cape Town to stay the same.”
Her priorities, she says, have been redressing imbalances in service delivery and addressing land restitution and affordable inner-city housing.
She prefers hands-on leadership to commanding from her office. On her first day as mayor she visited city depots and soon after went to meet trade union leaders at their offices.
Her approach sounds inclusive, yet the mayor has a reputation for wielding an iron fist. She puts this criticism down to her gender. “I do not normally like to play the woman card,” she says, “but people tend to put in adjectives like ‘feisty’, ‘fiery’ or ‘autocratic’ when women are in power.”
De Lille is determined to put the record straight with her own kiss-and-tell account after her divorce from the DA is settled.
“So many people have their sights set on who they want as mayor and have been mobilising around this. Many people have told me that they were promised new jobs in executive positions if they voted for the motion of no confidence in me. I’m making notes every day about what is happening. I’m keeping all the messages and e-mails and I’m in the process of writing a book.
“I have always been an activist. I will die an activist. Cape Town is where I started by throwing stones. Here is where I was arrested in 1976 and here every year I marched to the opening of parliament. I have finally come full circle to serve the people of Cape Town, and that’s what I’m doing.”
This is my fight with the DA. We are all equal before the law. Just give me a fair process
Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille relishes little more than a ding-dong political battle, and she is giving as good as she gets in her fight against her own party, the DA.