Making sense of the Cape Town madness
Okay, let’s try to distil some sense from the shambles. The issue at hand is the recent motion of no confidence brought by the ANC in the Cape Town City Council against Executive Mayor Patricia de Lille. It was first opposed by the DA. Then supported by the DA. Then withdrawn by the ANC. Then re-tabled by the DA. The result was 24 hours of political confusion and strategic disarray, the likes of which have rarely been witnessed in modern South African politics. Here is how it all played out.
First, some background.
The DA set the grand context for all of this when it brought its own such motion (at least, the last in a long line of motions of no confidence) against President Jacob Zuma, on 8 August last year.
Up to that point, with the odd exception, there had been a standard response on voting day: parties bloc voted in accordance with any directive from their leadership. Typically, the DA would vote in favour of its motions and the ANC, with a majority, against. Thus, they were all defeated. But the whole affair had been taken to the constitutional court and while the subsequent ruling left the option of a secret ballot to the discretion of the Speaker (which she granted), the court also declared parties could not dictate a voting line and each member be allowed to follow their conscience, without consequence.
So, the August vote was different. And there followed much public and private canvassing for ANC support, primarily from the DA but the ANC was not immune to adopting the moral high ground on the issue either. Mathews Phosa, for example, would say, “The measure of a mature democracy is not whether we all agree like zombies. It’s whether we are able to disagree and agree. That’s a measure of a mature democracy. A democracy of zombies‚ I don’t want to belong to.”
“I want to urge all ANC MPs to vote with their conscience today”, DA leader Mmusi Maimane said on the day. As it happened, the majority of ANC MP’s did exactly that, and sold what little was left of their collective soul to further legitimate the most destructive personality South Africa has seen post 94. The motion was defeated.
Nevertheless, and significantly, in his speech motivating in favour of the motion, Maimane would plead with the National Assembly that, “The choice before us is not between yellow, red or blue. It is not about party politics. It is not about which party tabled the motion. Today our choice is between right and wrong.”
Like it or lump it, there are often unseen political consequences that follow hard moral choices. For the DA, its line on the motion – that this was above and beyond party politics – was all well and fine when it came to Jacob Zuma. But what if the ANC brought a motion of no confidence against one of its own? Would it be able to replicate its moral stance, or balk?
It wouldn’t take long for that very test to manifest itself. As the DA’s Cape Town paradise has slowly devolved into purgatory, with all and sundry awaiting final judgement, Patricia de Lille emerged as the nexus around which all discontent seemed to revolve. After a myriad complex, confusing and damning party political and Cape Town City investigations, the ANC brought a motion of no confidence against her late last year, to be heard on Wednesday 31 January.
How the ANC got the jump on the DA
There is no doubt an interesting story behind how the ANC got a motion of no confidence on the council agenda before the DA. It was tabled as far back as November 2017, squeezed in just as the year closed and in time for the first council meeting of 2018. At the time Xolani Sotashe, the ANC leader in the Cape Metro, said “We are calling for the removal of the executive mayor from office and for a vote of no confidence against the mayor to be urgently tabled in council”. He made it clear that, “To us the ANC‚ it’s not about the fights within the DA. It’s about making sure that the executive accounts to the public”.
No doubt the DA wanted to table its own motion, but was scuppered by internal infighting when the relevant caucus meetings (these things need to be tabled some time before the relevant council meeting) was cancelled at the last minute. It was also likely the party was unsure whether it had the numbers to pull a majority vote in favour of any proposed motion of no confidence, as De Lille still enjoyed significant support inside the DA Cape Town caucus. In the other direction, a victory for De Lille would only make life more difficult for the DA leadership. This left the DA in an unenviable situation, whereby, publically, it was climbing into De Lille’s conduct on a daily basis but, in the City Council, was faced with nothing formal of its own, on the first council agenda. The ANC had cornered it.
Don’t underestimate the scale of the problem either. A motion of no confidence was the perfect political solution to the DA’s problems. The merits of the case against De Lille aside, if the party wanted her out, a vote of no confidence would bypass any legal or party political process. Should it go to court, one could really only review the procedure or challenge some technicality. The vote itself would be pretty much untouchable. So the DA’s one “clean cut”, political solution to its problems was now owned by the ANC.
Thus, over the course of the next month, followed a tortuous stream of obfuscation and post-facto rationalisation from inside the DA, as it tried to make sense of its predicament.
The contradictions begin
But before the DA could get to work at the rhetorical mill stone, the ANC would offer up the first contradiction, one of hundreds more to come.
The ANC’s motion of no confidence - which you can read here - clearly, directly and explicitly targeted De Lille and her conduct. It accused her of “withholding information”, acting “ultra vires”, and of “misleading” and trying to “coerce” Council. As a result of all this, the motion concluded, “we believe that keeping Ald Patricia de Lille in the position of Executive Mayor could prejudice the council in its operations…”
And remember, this was all before a Bowman Gilfillan report, tabled with the Council on 29 December, seemed to confirm the majority of the allegations against De Lille (the ANC had relied mostly on accusatory affidavits tabled with the council, the veracity of which the Bowman Gilfillan report sought to determine).
Nevertheless, the ANC now had political problems of its own: Get rid of De Lille and that might well bring an end to internal DA turmoil. It had also cornered itself.
The first signs of this became evident on 7 January, when Sotashe would say, “We will go ahead with our motion of no confidence. We want to be very clear: De Lille is not alone. I do not think that the DA must try to absolve itself.” The party was beginning to realise that, if it made De Lille the issue, it had inadvertently provided the solution. It needed to broaden its case.
A party that believes in due process and the rule of law
Meanwhile, the DA was falling over itself to explain why it had no motion of no confidence of its own, a problem compounded by the fact that, on 10 January, the DA’s Cape Town regional executive made a recommendation to the party’s Federal Executive Committee that De Lille be removed from her position.
“We’ve actually lost confidence in the mayor and we’ve asked the leadership to act on that,” said Metro executive chairperson Grant Twigg.
DA Western Cape leader Bonginkosi Madikizela said in response to the call, “My view here is that I don't want us to jump the gun, particularly on the issue of the mayor.”
Following an examination of both an internal party report (the Steenhuisen Report) into Cape Town caucus relations and the Cape Town-Bowman Gilfillan Report, the DA announced in 14 January it intended to formally charge De Lille with various breaches of the party’s rules and institute disciplinary proceedings. It sought to extend De Lille’s suspension from party activities as a result and remove her from certain functions in the City, primarily to do with management of the water crisis. The disciplinary process was to take 60 days. In other words, it was to be concluded by 14 March. That date is important.
Reading the decision of the Federal Executive, Maimane made no mention of a motion of no confidence. He outlined only how and on what grounds the party’s Federal Legal Commission would investigate De Lille.
On 16 January, when asked why the party did not simply propose a motion of no confidence in De Lille, given its clear, substantial and well-documented reservations about her ability to lead, chairperson of the DA Federal Executive, James Selfe, replied: “Because the mayor contests, very strongly, the veracity of much of the content of the Steenhuisen committee and, as a consequence and as a party that believes in due process and the rule of law, we have now taken all those sections […] that relate to the mayor, we have formulated them into disciplinary charges, we are going to be serving a charge sheet against the mayor, but then the mayor will have the opportunity, within the Federal Legal Commission of the DA, to supply her side of the story and, to the extent she can, to disabuse the allegations that have been brought against her.”
In the same interview - although the interviewer seemed unaware such a motion had already been tabled against De Lille by the ANC - Selfe said that the party, in terms of the constitutional court ruling, could not dictate how DA councillors should vote if a motion was tabled although he said, as the Federal Executive, “we would advise our councillors in the City of Cape Town not to vote for a motion of no confidence until such time as the investigation, by the Federal Legal Commission, has been concluded. I think that that is the fair process to follow and I think that it is one that I would advise my colleagues to follow”.
In his weekly newsletter, on 19 January, Maimane likewise acknowledged and bemoaned this state of affairs, saying, “Unfortunately, this decision will draw out the process of achieving resolution. But as a DA public representative who has made a huge positive contribution to the DA and SA, we must give Mayor De Lille further opportunity to fully respond to all allegations levelled against her, which are detailed in my statement released after the meeting.”
Thus, as things stood at this moment, the ANC position was that De Lille was unfit to be Executive Mayor, that “To us the ANC‚ it’s not about the fights within the DA” and that, “It’s about making sure that the executive accounts to the public”; whereas the DA’s position was that “due process” and “the rule of law” take its course, however cumbersome, as this was “the fair process to follow”, as opposed to a motion of no confidence.
The ANC’s motion starts to loom large
But none of this changed the fact that there was already a motion of no confidence on the council agenda, and the DA was going to have to work out what to do about it. On the one hand, it could not wish it away; on the other hand, it would still have been unsure of how the Cape Town caucus would vote. The media was starting to cotton onto this, and questions were beginning to be put.
Madikizela would reiterate the DA’s position on 16 January, saying, “It must be clearly understood that the vote of no confidence is not completely off the table yet, but we want to follow due processes. If and when there is a need for the party to pass a motion of no confidence, we will deal with it at that particular time.”
On 23 January Madikizela would say, in response to a question about the ANC’s motion of no confidence, “As the DA, we don’t gag our members. We are a liberal party that allows people to have their own views‚ but those views must be guided by DA principles and values.”
That, however, was not true. The DA constitution itself (which the party will have to amend in light of the constitutional court ruling) expressly prohibits DA members from aligning themselves with any opposition agenda. So quite what values and principles he was referring to are difficult to say.
Behind the scenes, temperatures were rising. On 24 January the Cape Town caucus met and, after a long debate, passed its own internal motion of no confidence in De Lille (revolving around her decision to institute a drought levy). Madikizela would say afterwards, “The DA caucus of the City of Cape Town last night decided by 84 votes to 59, and one spoilt vote that it has lost confidence in Mayor Patricia de Lille.”
That presented in turn another set of problems. 84 votes was not enough for a majority in the Cape Town Council, it would have to rely on the ANC. One way or the other, whatever the national leadership was advocating in terms of “due process”, both the regional executive and a majority of the city caucus had now effectively rejected De Lille. And still the party had no formal city mechanism of its own to express this.
As the council vote drew closer, the DA’s language became even more tortured. Caught in a Catch-22 situation, it was starting to talk in circles.
Madikizela would say on 26 January “We believe that it’s the party that must table its own motion rather than supporting the motion of the opposition.” And, elaborating on that point on 30 January, a mere 24 hours before the council would meet, he would say, “We live in a country where majority rules. There was an overwhelming vote in the request for the motion but we also expect some cooperation from her (De Lille). But she is hellbent on staying on as the mayor, but we can’t remove her through the ANC.”
Certainly Maimane’s 2017 plea to the National Assembly, that “It is not about which party tabled the motion”, was now long forgotten.
The DA pressure valve blows
But something had to break for the DA. And the thing that likely broke it was pressure. With the drought crisis escalating daily, with De Lille showing no signs of retreat – rather, showing every inclination of taking every element of the DA’s disciplinary process against her to court (where she had already won a victory) - and with 31 March looking further and further away, the prospect of the ANC’s motion of no confidence was too tempting. Here was a gift from the ANC: a bipartisan, entirely political opportunity to solve this problem quickly.
And so it was, on the morning of 31 January, the DA would announce after careful deliberation, “The ANC in the Cape Town council has tabled a motion of no confidence against the Mayor which is due for debate today. The FedEx has thus authorized the caucus – which has already expressed its lack of confidence in the Mayor by a way of a caucus vote – the right to support the ANC’s motion. While this is an unprecedented move, the ANC correctly in its motion details many, but not all, of the maladministration that the Mayor is responsible for.”
It also stated that, “The Federal Executive of the Democratic Alliance has authorized the DA caucus in the City of Cape Town to lodge a motion of no confidence in Mayor Patricia”.
But how was the party to justify its about-turn and the seeming abandonment of its commitment to due process and rule of law, as it guiding principles? To get around this, it referred to a raft of new allegations that had recently emerged in the media, concerning De Lille, the result of which, the party argued, the scales had been tipped and the Federal Executive no longer had faith in her to lead, whatever their veracity.
In a statement, Madikizela set them out. They included, the loss of the City’s “clean audit” status (the Auditor-General had announced the City finances unqualified but with findings), the AG findings that all was not kosher regarding the security upgrades to De Lille’s private residence (something De Lille denies) and her failure to properly manage the drought crisis. On the basis of these, and its pre-existing concerns, the statement declared: “The FedEx has taken this step on the basis that the caucus, and the Party has too lost faith in her leadership.”
It was a weak argument, if the pre-existing allegations were not enough to engender a lack of faith, these new ones were hardly revelations. But it was the only argument the DA had and things were quickly spiralling out of control.
Some of these new reasons were rich indeed, especially coming from Madikizela. For example, his position that, “These prima facie findings have been supported by the fact that the Auditor-General has downgraded the City’s audit status from clean, to unqualified with conditions. This is untenable for a DA government to see a deterioration in its audit status.” As De Lille would point out later, Madikizela’s own department (he is the Western Cape MEC for Human Settlements) had lost its “clean audit” status (to unqualified with other matters). If that sort of deterioration was, as he said, “untenable”, how is it his own performance had been met with zero consequences?
In turn, even if not the sole determining factor for De Lille, the precedent the DA was setting, that anything less than a clean audit was “untenable”, was a ridiculously high standard. There could well be long term repercussions for it.
But the DA had cracked. It could see the white of De Lille’s eyes. And it wanted a head shot.
The ANC implodes under the weight of its own pettiness
So the ball was now in the ANC’s court. And it was panicking. Big time. It had basically created the perfect scenario to help the DA out of its dilemma, and by hook or by crook, the DA had got there in the end. The ANC was trapped.
It had done the numbers too. There were murmurings the night before the vote, that the ANC was planning to abstain from its own motion. Even the risk that enough rogue DA caucus members, without a formal mandate from the Federal Executive, might vote in favour of its motion, was too big already. Take a moment to think about just how spectacularly politically incompetent a party has to be, to be forced to abstain from its own vote.
But the ANC wasn’t done on the madness front just yet. There was more to come. The DA had now had the ANC’s own rope lashed firmly around the opposition’s neck. The ANC did the only thing it could. It withdrew its motion of no confidence in De Lille. It is certainly the first time - and quite possibly the only time - a political party was forced to withdraw its own motion, out of no more than an acute fear it might actually succeed. And, if you think the DA had to jump through some logical hoops to justify its about turn, the explanation produced by the ANC defied belief.
“The DA wants to opportunistically hijack the motion of no confidence brought by the ANC against De Lille to resolve their own internal squabbles”, read a statement, not from the ANC in the Western Cape, but from no less than the party’s national spokesperson.
The ANC in the Western Cape would then produce its own convoluted mess of an explanation in turn:
“The DA has prioritised factionalism over the needs of the people of the Western Cape. They are collectively responsible for this water crisis. It is for this reason that the ANC will have to withdraw its motion of no confidence in today’s council meeting and instead call for the national government through minister of Cogta to [invoke] section 100 of the Constitution and put both the City of Cape Town and the Western Cape provincial administration... under administration by national government.”
Two things about that explanation: First, it put pay to Sotashe’s earlier claim that, “To us the ANC‚ it’s not about the fights within the DA. It’s about making sure that the executive accounts to the public”. The ANC never had any moral basis for its motion of no confidence. It was clearly only ever concerned with politicking from the get go. It was playing with fire, and it got burnt. Second, by the standard set out in that statement, every second ANC-run government would be put under administration. It was a demand as detached from the ANC’s own reality as it was self-destructive.
Back to where it all began
And so it is, today, after some three months of motion of no confidence madness, the DA finds itself pretty much back at first base: with an Executive Mayor profoundly at odds with the powers that be, facing a raft of damning accusations and reports and locked into a legal war of attrition with her own party. The DA, however, has now abandoned all of that and gone the political route, desperate to bring an end to all the insanity.
After the ANC had withdrawn its own motion, the DA announced it would be tabling one itself, set to be heard in 10 days time: “While the DA Federal Executive believes in the presumption of innocence until proven otherwise, and agreed for the mayor to be subjected to internal processes to clear her name, continuous acts of defiance from her and new damming revelations have resulted in her own caucus tabling this motion.”
The DA will now do everything in its power to be sure the motion will pass. Failure to pass it would be catastrophic. It must be more confident it can than it was when the caucus voted in private a week earlier because the ANC (and other smaller parties like the ACDP) certainly don’t seem set to help. The DA is going to have to do this on its own.
It was quite a journey to get to where, essentially, the DA should have been in November. There are roller-coaster rides and roller-coaster rides but this one was a doozy, looping in and around and up and down and even back in on itself. Not Cape Town’s proudest week, and no advertisement for constituency or moral conviction either.
You constantly think, in South Africa politics, you have reached the boundaries of the absurd. You constantly find out you have not. The ANC took things deep, deep into the Twlight Zone this week. Only it realised too late. The truth is, even without its motion of no confidence it has helped galvanise the DA around its own political solution. And it’s the very answer it has been so desperately looking everywhere for.
Gareth van Onselen is the Head of Politics and Governance at the South African Institute of Race Relations.