Editorial: Led astray by sins of incumbency

Using government powers to reward a party supporter … cracking down on a whistle-blower … using majority muscle to drive through a controversial council decision … splashing public money in the party’s cause … instituting a court case at public expense and shelving it at the last minute – the ruling party’s serial abuse of office is nothing short of disgraceful, and heads should roll.

To avoid any possible misunderstanding, the “ruling party” in this instance is not the ANC. It is Patricia de Lille’s Democratic Alliance, which controls the Cape Town metropolitan council. As we report today, the tawdry little saga starts with the controversial granting of planning permission for a house extension in Camps Bay and a claim by the DA’s Marga Haywood that a fellow party councillor urged approval because the applicant was “a big donor for the DA”. The allegation has been rather limply denied.

The party hierarchy reacted not by probing a serious allegation of the abuse of local government power for party gain, but by ordering a forensic inquiry into Haywood at considerable cost to the public purse. It now appears that she faces possible disciplinary action.

In the latest development, a court case ordered by De Lille to defend the planning decision has been quietly shelved, leaving the impression that the party leapt to shield itself and then took the calculated decision that it would be too damaging to have Haywood’s allegations aired and thoroughly tested in open court.

A fight over planning permission may not sound like a major issue, but the fear is that it could be a straw in the wind. The Mail & Guardian recently reported that questions had also been asked about De Lille’s role in promoting a major commercial development in the Clifton coastal reserve from which some of her friends sought to benefit.

At issue is what some have described as “the sins of incumbency” – what happens to political formations when they move from opposition and become securely ensconced in government.

It is painless for a party to stand on strict principle when it has no power to abuse. What really matters is how it conducts itself when it acquires the political capital to reward itself and its followers.

Not very long ago, the DA’s control of Cape Town was a fragile thing – assailed from all sides and forced into alliances of convenience, its survival dependent on persuading the city’s voters that it served their interests.

It now holds more than 60% of the seats in the metro council. The fear is that its increasingly unassailable majority will bring complacency – and worse, the politics of the pork barrel.

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