Fighting De Lille weakens Maimane ahead of 2019 polls

Patricia de Lille.
Patricia de Lille.

We've been here before.

The DA at loggerheads with the party-chosen Cape Town mayor and demanding that they hand back the mayoral chain.

The mayor remaining defiant and essentially telling party leaders to go jump in a lake.

However, the difference between the 2001 mayoral saga involving then DA leader Tony Leon and then Cape Town mayor Peter Marais and the current impasse between the Mmusi Maimane-led DA and Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille is the time it took for each case to be resolved.

In the Leon versus Marais case, the DA was swift, getting rid of Marais within a month despite the fact that he still had strong support from both within the party caucus in the city council and among the New National Party (NNP) component of the DA.

Yet it has taken Maimane and his federal executive almost a year to push out De Lille, causing huge damage to the party's brand and leaving its leader looking weak and inexperienced.

While Marais' axing did indirectly contribute to the breaking down of relations between Leon and his then deputy, Marthinus van Schalkwyk and the eventual departure by former NNP leaders from the DA, it did restore leadership stability in the city and reaffirmed Leon's authority over the then newly-merged DA.

The De Lille debacle, by contrast, erodes Maimane's authority over his party with everyday that passes by without it being resolved. It does not help that he is not the DA's chief spokesman on the issue as having the like of Natasha Mazzone lead the charge against De Lille tends to play into the hands of those who want to see the conflict as a racial issue.

With the elections just around the corner, surely the DA does not want to find itself on the back foot again fighting allegations that it is a "white" and "anti-black" party? The whole effort of having Maimane and other young black leaders being the prominent faces of the DA was to put an end to this accusation and show the party to be a viable alternative to the ANC.

The strategy seemed to be paying off in 2016 when the party gained control of previous ANC strongholds of Johannesburg; Tshwane and Nelson Mandela Bay metro councils. With the three metros and the Western Cape under its control, the DA seemed in the strongest position it has ever been to take on the ANC come the next general election.

Through these governments it could focus on proving its often-stated claim - where the DA governs, it governs better. But whatever it may or may not be doing in Tshwane is overshadowed now by the De Lille debacle.

Although the party's government in Johannesburg seems to be stable, it does seem that mayor Herman Mashaba is implementing the EFF's manifesto there, and not necessarily that of his party.

It is in Maimane and the DA's best interest to resolve their conflict with De Lille as soon as possible. Otherwise they'll be headed for a beating in an upcoming election.

If it is true that Maimane has initiated informal talks with De Lille to end the impasse, smart move by him.

No matter how convinced the DA may be that De Lille should be expelled as a member and that she should lose her mayoral chain, the truth of the matter is that the courts are not the most conducive way of resolving this conflict just months before the next election.

So, for Maimane, the best way out is to negotiate a deal that would see De Lille walking away without a further fight. He would then have to use the coming months to repair the damage that has been done to his party and himself as its leader ahead of the polls.

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