Cape Town gets an empathetic and competent manager

THIS year has been a momentous one for Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille — she sounded the death knell for the party she leads, won an election with an absolute majority under the banner of another party to secure the mayoral chain, and saw the launch of an inquiry into the arms deal after leading a lonely campaign to that end for years.

The Independent Democrats (ID) party still officially exists, with De Lille as its leader. However, this is more a consequence of SA’s electoral system and specifically the lack of a mechanism allowing parties to legally merge at all levels of governance now that the floor- crossing legislation has been scrapped, than a deliberate goal.

Such is the closeness of De Lille’s identification with the Democratic Alliance (DA) since the municipal elections in May that it is hard to believe the ID, formed by De Lille during a floor- crossing window in 2003, was a separate and occasionally hostile entity a little over a year ago.

Go back another couple of years and the prospect of the two parties merging would have seemed preposterous to many, such was the level of public acrimony between De Lille and DA leader Helen Zille, in particular.

This was illustrated when the 2006 municipal election ended with no party holding an absolute majority of seats. The ID held the balance of power, and De Lille’s first choice was to form a government in alliance with the African National Congress (ANC).

However, the move proved highly unpopular among ID supporters, who showed their unhappiness by abandoning the party and helping the DA to victory in a series of by-elections, followed by control of the Western Cape in the 2009 provincial election. By the time campaigning for this year’s municipal election began, De Lille was under no illusion; she either had to get over her residual animosity towards the DA or face annihilation at the polls.

Her decision to merge with the DA was no doubt eased by several years of serving as its junior partner in the multiparty coalition government eventually formed in Cape Town, following the ID’s brief and disastrous flirtation with the ANC.

The coalition, headed at the time by Zille as mayor, managed to cling to a thin majority despite coming under sustained attack by the ANC, much of it underhand and some using illegal means that still have repercussions.

It appears that little has changed as far as the ANC’s approach to regaining power in the Western Cape is concerned. Last month criminal charges were laid by the DA against several ANC officials it accuses of being part of a plot code-named Project Reclaim, which allegedly involved attempts to bribe DA councilors to give up their seats and stand for the ANC in the subsequent by-election.

After its rather shaky start, De Lille’s relationship with the DA has gone from strength to strength, especially now that the merged parties have control of the majority of seats in the Cape Town council. The distraction involved in keeping a fragile coalition together is no longer a factor.

There has been no sign of a power struggle between her and Zille, who seems content to leave Cape Town in De Lille’s hands while she grooms young black leaders as part of the DA’s long- term strategy to wrest other provinces from the ANC’s grasp, using the Western Cape as an example of the party’s ability to govern.

De Lille’s chief rival in the mayoral race, Congress of South African Trade Unions provincial secretary Tony Ehrenreich, has proved a disappointment in opposition.

Selected as the ANC’s candidate in part because he was aloof from both of the main factions that had divided the party since the time of Ebrahim Rasool ’s leadership, Ehrenreich was seen as a potentially formidable competitor, particularly because his many years as an anti-apartheid activist and hands-on organiser in the labour movement meant he enjoyed the respect of the coloured and black working classes in the Cape.

But he has virtually disappeared since losing the election to De Lille, and when he does manage to make the newspapers it is invariably to carp in a manner that makes him appear petty and obstructive.

He did neither himself nor his party any favours by accusing the council of racism for constructing a bicycle lane from Milnerton to the city centre, for instance, and has shown little understanding of how effective local governance works, especially the budgetary and capital allocation processes.

Mainly, however, Ehrenreich appears simply to have been left flat- footed by De Lille’s proactive leadership style, which has allowed her to pre- empt the ANC’s attacks and turn areas where the DA has traditionally been weak into points of strength.

A prime example of this came within weeks of De Lille assuming office, when she put the DA’s pride in her pocket and ordered that all open toilets in the Makaza informal settlement be enclosed by the council, settling a long- running dispute with the community that the ANC had been milking to its political advantage.

There was a strong feeling in the DA that the council should not back down on principle — an agreement had been reached with the community that they would enclose their own toilets — but De Lille recognised this was a battle of perceptions the DA could not win.

Similarly, she ensured city officials took a more conciliatory approach with the Hangberg community of Hout Bay, who had resisted violently when shacks that were erected in a firebreak were broken down. The accord reached after months of mediation has now been made an order of the court and peace prevails in Hangberg.

De Lille has also prioritised the provision of basic services to the city’s shack settlements, all of which now have electricity and access to potable water. She has taken an active interest in the plight of thousands of “backyarders”, many of whom have been on housing waiting lists for decades.

De Lille has also cracked down on the illegal shebeens and drug dens that contribute to the Cape Flats’ horrendous crime levels.

Such initiatives in the disadvantaged areas of Cape Town, undertaken while simultaneously ensuring the rest of the city works, as well as investment in new projects such as the MyCiti bus service and maintenance of existing infrastructure continues, have so far allowed De Lille to keep one step ahead of the opposition.

Perhaps most importantly , she has made good use of her past involvement with “progressive” organisations in Cape Town’s civil society, which were traditionally supportive of the ANC, to encourage constructive engagement that has seen both sides starting to pull in the same direction rather than wasting time and resources in perpetual conflict.

The Social Justice Coalition, an umbrella body for various issue-driven community organisations, appears to have developed a solid working relationship with De Lille that has borne fruit in a number of areas that invariably resulted in conflict in the past, most notably that of improving access to sanitation in the informal parts of the Cape Flats.

For possibly the first time in Cape Town’s history, the city has a competent and representative administration with an empathetic leader who enjoys considerable credibility with both suburban ratepayers and the disadvantaged masses who populate the Cape Flats’ many informal settlements.

The challenges remain daunting, especially since the regional economy is highly dependent on European export markets, but there is scope for real progress on the social front in Cape Town next year and beyond.

Source – BusinessDay – DAVE MARRS: Cape Town gets an empathetic and competent manager


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