Patricia De Lille has built the Independent Democrats into a significant opposition political power in South Africa, but analysts believe she faces some tough growing pains ahead, reports Waghied Misbach

Since defecting from the PAC in 2003, Patricia De Lille has made significant gains in building the Independent Democrats.

Since defecting from the PAC in 2003, Patricia De Lille has made significant gains in building the Independent Democrats.

From those initial days, when the party membership was 45000, it now has 160000 members.

At the party's second national conference held in Cape Town at the weekend, De Lille forecast that a million voters will support the ID in the 2009 national election.

She spoke of heading the "fastest-growing political party in our country"; about major gains in Northern Cape and North West; and that the ID will "challenge" for the Western Cape government in 2009.

She spoke in boxing parlance, about the ID "punching above its weight" class.

But can she translate her hopes into reality and can she compete with the apparent rise of the Democratic Alliance's Helen Zille?

Institute for a Democratic South Africa (Idasa) political analyst Jonathan Faull says the ID faces a number of hurdles leading up to 2009 and beyond.

This includes having to negotiate floor-crossing periods, one of which runs from September 1 to 15.

The ID "haemorrhaged" in 2005, losing three of seven MPs in that year and two-thirds of its provincial caucus in Western Cape during that national and provincial floor-crossing period, says Faull.

Faull's analysis is borne out by the speculation now circulating that national MP Avril Harding, her once-trusted lieutenant who started the party with her, will be the first to go come September.

Harding has been accused of sexual harassment by the newly-elected ID deputy president Agnes Tsamai.

Harding faces disciplinary action, which is reminiscent of the manner in which former ID MPL Lennit Max faced disciplinary action.

Max successfully held on to his seat and crossed the floor to the DA, by allegedly delaying his disciplinary hearings until the floor-crossing window opened.

Faull says the effect of the loss in 2005 by defectors was two-fold. The ID lost much of its voice in representative institutions of the government; but also in terms of cash because of the manner in which public funds are allocated to political parties under the Public Funding of Representative Political Parties Act.

For instance, a party with only municipal representation will receive no funding at all.

Faull argues that, among the broader challenges facing the ID, is a struggle to "cohere" its policies, though he says this is a problem facing all parties that have been formed through floor-crossing.

He cited as examples the National Democratic Convention (Nadeco), the breakaway from the Inkatha Freedom Party; and the United Independent Front, the breakaway party from Bantu Holomisa's United Democratic Movement.

But, Faull says the ID has largely avoided the crisis faced by Nadeco, which has seen that party's leadership fight for power in the courts.

Faull says that over the past 18 months the ID has made "significant" gains in reconsolidating itself.

He argues that the party needs to break out from the "perception" that it gets its main support from the coloured working class. He points out that the ID gains its support from all sectors of South African society including liberal, middle-class whites who like De Lille's "forthright anti-corruption stance" and her "maverick approach" to politics.

Faull believes that the ID has a chance to win votes and representation in Western Cape, come 2009.

Ebrahim Fakir, analyst at the Centre for Policy Studies, says that, like many opposition parties, the ID still has to build its "credibility and legitimacy" among the majority of voters who still largely support the alliance of the ANC, the SACP and Cosatu.

If any party is likely to unseat the ANC from the Western Cape government, it would be the DA, argues Fakir.

But he says the ID has shown itself better at making strategic calculations when it comes to making alliances.

He argues that the ID did take a principled stand when negotiating with the ANC last year after the local government elections. Fakir blames journalists for spreading the "lie" that De Lille had negotiated in bad faith.

The mistake De Lille made was to apologise to voters for something she was not responsible for, he says.

Fakir says that the ID would probably not be able to take the Western Cape government on its own, but that the party could gain enough power to be able to enter into negotiations with other parties.

He did not rule out the possibility that the ID could even enter into an alliance with the ANC, notwithstanding its alliance with the DA in Cape Town.

Fakir believes that De Lille is also moving the party away from the perception that it has mainly support from the coloured working class.

The party has shown that it is gaining support in North West, where the majority of voters do not come from the coloured community.

The structure of its new executive elected at the weekend adequately represents the demographics of the country, he argues.

Fakir is impressed with De Lille's achievement in building the party, from virtually nothing to having about 1000 delegates representing it at its just-ended conference.

However, he says the party leadership and members should be careful to not turn that into a personality cult.

For De Lille, as it will for many other opposition parties, the first test comes on September 1 when the floor-crossing window opens.