Feisty ID leader bats for women and children

Don Makatile

We make way for the boisterousness of the after-party in the living area to find quieter standing room in the inner recesses of the colossal Michelangelo Hotel suite.

But whereas the couch allowed level non-discriminatory eye contact, I find myself looking down at Patricia de Lille in here.

Those of her political adversaries who've succumbed to the folly of mixing the prepositions have found her to be biting hot, like the red suit she's wearing to this Friday afternoon function at the ultra posh Sandton hotel.

She's in town to introduce the Gauteng leadership of the Independent Democrats (ID) to the media.

The feisty De Lille founded the ID in 2004 after an exit from the Pan Africanist Congress of Azania (PAC).

She speaks her mind, "truth to power", as she puts it, so much so that in March 1998 she was diagnosed with cancer of the larynx.

There was a lot of excitement in the enemy camp when she lost her voice for four months. Dying to get well, she'd confide in her biographer Charlene Smith how, in a letter to the PAC top brass at the time, she lamented "having to rely on other people to speak on my behalf".

But in time she'd return, much to the chagrin of the rogues.

As excitement around the arms deal was re-ignited last week, with claims that President Thabo Mbeki accepted a R30 million bribe from tendering hopefuls, the spotlight wasn't on De Lille, who first blew the whistle on the corruption nine years ago.

"I've done my bit," she says about her role in the affair, "I blew the whistle on September 9 1999. It's now up to the democratic institutions to take over."

Where there are allegations of corruption, De Lille says, "they must be investigated, persons charged brought before a court of law because we are all equal before the law".

She's adamant her duty is to raise the issues.

"My brief in life is not to run after crooks but improve the lives of women and children. That's what I love doing."

But the latest allegations are not surprising, she says: "With the arms deal you can never hide. The truth will always out. It is up to people to come clean."

She makes the example of former German Chancellor Helmut Kohl who, when it emerged that his government had for 30 years been propped up by arms deals, hastily quit.

Arms deals are by their nature corrupt: "Everywhere in the world. There's no way South Africa's can be any different."

She cites Saudi Arabia and Britain as examples.

The government must stop being in denial, she continues, they must allow investigations. "Why are they so defensive if people have done nothing wrong? Why must they block it always?"

She remains happy that "The De Lille Dossier" she presented to the powers-that-be led to two successful prosecutions - Schabir Shaik, Tony Yengeni. "And now Jacob Zuma."

The questions continue: "Why don't they investigate other allegations? Why are they selective?"

She says there are 50 or 60 others named in the dossier.

Her conclusion is scary: "Once the Mbeki camp is gone the Zuma camp is going to reopen the case. This is not gonna go away; they are going to use it to settle scores with one another."

The plight of women and children is a subject she keeps returning to, over and over again.

She cringes at the mere mention of violence against women, like the much-publicised Nwabisa Ngcukana incident at the Bree Street taxi rank. "There's no justification to abuse a woman or a child. Women and children are the most vulnerable in our society. They need to be protected."

She's totally against women abuse, for whatever reason. She believes the violence will only stop "when we as family members break the silence".

Court records show that in 85 percent of the cases the perpetrators are known to the victims of abuse, she says.

"How I see it," she says, "is that once a community shames the guilty party, that person becomes an outcast. It works."

She knows the pain of losing a loved one. De Lille's sister, Laetitia, who stood 1,55m and weighed a near skeletal 40 kg, was brutally murdered after being raped.

The two louts who committed this dastardly act did not account for the older sibling, a no-nonsense politician!

On the flip side there's been gains made in the direction of fully assuaging the pain of women and improving their lot.

"We made a lot of gains in terms of a constitution that outlaws discrimination on the basis of gender," De Lille says, and mentions the various Acts of parliament, UN conventions and Beijing.

"We've made progress, what remains now is the implementation of all these agreements. We need to see to it that women claim those rights, otherwise they will only remain paper rights."

She adds: Talking about rights is one thing; claiming them is quite another.

But on the whole she's happy about the advances women have made in all spheres of life. She makes special mention of Judge Navanethem Pillay, a 67-year-old local woman now sitting on the International Criminal Court.

The ID president says there's a need to increase the number of women benefiting from the new dispensation, and it is the responsibility of, firstly, government, and secondly, "the other women who've made it in life to ensure they don't leave the other sisters behind".

She contends that if each of these empowered women took responsibility for 10 - 15 women in rural areas, who are HIV-positive, or are abused, "there will be a major change".

She adds: "What I'm saying is that sisters 'you are on your own'. Sisters must look after sisters."

But they need the help of men to achieve this, De Lille says.

Married to Edwin with two children, De Lille, already a granny of three of daughter Carmen's children, says chores in their household have always been gender-less.

"I'm never at home on a Women's Day," she answers, "I am just grateful that every day I'm treated like an equal in the house. We share the responsibilities, everything. There's no such thing in my house as it being the woman's duty to cook.

"Many years ago while I was still in the trade unions we had this rule at home that since we both work, whoever comes home early must start cooking.

"And I always came late," she quips.

While many women look up to her, her own role models have been males. "That is the irony - that I've been groomed and mentored and put where I am by, except my mother, everybody male."

Names like the late Barney Desai and Steve Biko come up. Dikgang Moseneke too. "It was not by design," she says, "there were not many women in those positions at the time."

We pause as she shakes hands and bids farewell to some guests.

"I fear no one, only the Lord. I'm not afraid of anyone, even one as powerful as the ANC," says the woman widely known to be Nelson Mandela's favourite politician.

The ID is new and doesn't come with the baggage of the past, she says.

"We are part of this new movement in the country. I left the PAC because it was static. You must be alive to the time of the day and that time of the day was 1994."

The voter of the ANC is still attached to the values of the struggle. And these are continuously being betrayed, says the woman proud of her struggle credentials.

The infighting in the ANC too has impacted negatively on almost everything, from law enforcement to service delivery, she says.

Her party will "remain true to the values of the struggle" since the ANC, a once proud liberation movement, is beginning to lose its way: "We'll remain the conscience to remind the ANC what the struggle was all about."

When she says "we were all in the trenches together", one gets the feeling De Lille knows the ANC and the struggle for liberation only too well. It is for this reason that when she says "people are beginning to look in other directions", away from the ruling party, one cannot scoff at such.

"As democracy matures, the ANC majority is dwindling."

With 185000 members nationally, she's achieved her ambition to be the first woman to start a political party that would gain national significance.

Outside politics De Lille plays golf off a 22 handicap and finds walking along the beach very refreshing.

She also loves dancing, she says: "Whenever I get the opportunity ..."

The Beaufort West-born De Lille, who has received awards from as far afield as Canada and was awarded the Freedom of the City of Birmingham, US, is off to Denver, Colorado, in a few weeks to be at a celebration of Barack Obama's presidential nomination. One of a select 20 leaders across the globe!

"We can make it," she says of Africans, wherever they may be. "We are unstoppable."