In the shadow of Patricia de Lille’s fight to salvage her political career, the party’s Cape Town caucus has been wrecked.
De Lille’s supporters have accused their colleagues of racism, whereas her opponents have called her a power-hungry bully.
And, after agreeing to collapse the disciplinary process against De Lille, the DA is still in possession of documents that could have significantly tarnished De Lille’s reputation as a champion of clean governance — including evidence that the embattled mayor had indeed attempted to influence the appointment of the former Cape Town city manager.
In late 2016, a councillor told senior officials in the DA that her boss, De Lille, had instructed her in an SMS to score interview candidate Achmat Ebrahim “highest” because she wanted him to be reappointed as city manager.
The allegation was part of a range of charges the party compiled against De Lille when it first instituted disciplinary action in January this year.
De Lille never denied sending the SMS but spent months asking for the allegation to be authenticated.
Now, the Mail & Guardian has seen a forensic report that confirms the veracity of the SMS. The credibility of the report has also been confirmed. It is the first time that evidence of wrongdoing against De Lille has emerged since the DA began its campaign to purge her from the party.
The report, which was compiled for the DA by an independent company called Cyanre, a self-styled digital forensic lab, is dated May 24 2018 and is addressed to DA federal legal commission chairperson Glynnis Breytenbach.
This date confirms that the party had evidence against De Lille nearly three months before agreeing to withdraw charges of misconduct and accepting that she would resign in October.
Cyanre confirmed that the content of the message, which was sent to councillor Xanthea Limberg, said: “I want to keep Achmat so score him highest. Thanks.”
The forensic company said the message had been sent to Limberg from a number that matches the mayor’s cellphone number.
The report includes a caveat that further verification of the SMS can be administered if the sender’s phone is handed over for analysis. Although there was “no indication” that the SMS had been manipulated, it was possible the text could be modified with a high degree of technical expertise, the report added.
Ebrahim was appointed city manager but resigned in January this year — two months after his reappointment.
DA leader Mmusi Maimane declined to explain why the party dropped the charges against De Lille. He also would not answer why the evidence was not handed to the courts when De Lille asked the DA to show her evidence of wrongdoing months ago.
The DA had previously argued in court papers that it could not do so because the evidence was confidential.
Just a day before the DA dropped the charges against her, councillors were undergoing witness preparation so that they could testify at the disciplinary hearings, which had been set down for August 7, 8 and 9.
The M&G has spoken to 27 councillors in the 154 member caucus who watched everything unravel. Their names have been withheld because the DA’s Thomas Walters has issued a directive to instruct members not to talk about the De Lille saga.
De Lille, speaking through her lawyers, has declined to comment.
The start of it all
Councillors from both factions trace the root of the divisions to the aftermath of the August 2016 local government elections. It had been a stunning victory with the DA sweeping the Cape metro with a two-thirds majority.
Weeks later, another race was on — for the caucus leadership. The most contested position was that of deputy leader, when JP Smith faced off against Brett Herron.
Herron, the mayoral committee member for urban development, had also been a member of De Lille’s Independent Democrats (ID) and travelled with her to City Hall.
While the two men were canvassing, De Lille’s supporters allege Smith made calls to caucus members in which he “referred to us as ID people” —an alleged euphemism for coloured people — the beginning, they say, of a racially fuelled division in caucus.
Smith, who was on De Lille’s successful campaign team to become DA mayor in 2011, claimed his campaign calls were for the caucus to identify as DA members, rather than clinging to previous political affiliations. De Lille, he said, distorted this message.
Smith was elected deputy caucus leader but shortly thereafter the DA versus ID sentiment once again raised its head.
Councillor Carin Brynard, who has since left the party, sent De Lille, Smith, Maimane and federal executive chairperson James Selfe a text message that sparked a heated caucus row.
Brynard, who had been chair of the safety and security portfolio committee in council, had lost her position. She texted: “I take note of the insult and ‘dwarsklap’ I am given with regards to not having received a full-time post. I also take note of the fact that less able and short serving clls [councillors] received posts —a great number of them who are ex-ID members and buddies of certain groupings!”
De Lille unleashed her anger. Her supporters say that, if the door to the meeting room had been closed, the row between her and Brynard could still have been heard outside.
For them, it was an “Ashwin Willemse moment”, in which the mayor was standing up against any sentiment in the caucus that coloured and black people — the “ex-ID people” — were less competent than the white councillors.
De Lille read Brynard’s SMS to the caucus and a shouting match ensued. Brynard claims De Lille called her a “Nat murderer”, not because she was a member of the National Party but because she is Afrikaans and white.
No one remembers exactly what was said but everyone remembers the moment.
For De Lille’s critics, the mayor handled it badly; too vicious in confronting Brynard. She lost control, they say.
But the “watershed moment” for her critics was when De Lille claimed the DA’s two-thirds majority was down to her, caucus chief whip and close ally Shaun August and Herron’s efforts.
De Lille’s supporters say Brynard provoked the statement and De Lille immediately noted the contribution of the rest of the caucus in the party’s victory. Her critics, however, say the damage had been done.
Brynard left the party, citing divisions, to join the Cape Party.
But there would be more drama.
In April last year, there was heated debate during a caucus meeting about a payment to the V&A Waterfront. The city’s finance department had approved the payment of R9-million for municipal services but most in the caucus were unconvinced. It had come in as a late item on the council agenda and it is alleged that few were persuaded by the merits of the payment.
The caucus broke away from council to meet.
An attempt was made to reach a consensus by debate. De Lille then called for a vote but August and assistant whip Rose Rau could not count the hands waving in front of them in the tiny meeting room.
Rau then called for a division, saying it was necessary because the vote could not be tallied.
So the room split. Caucus members moved to either side of the room to indicate their support or opposition to the payment.
From one end of the room, the mournful strains of Senzeni Na could be heard. The caucus divisions had been laid bare.
De Lille was forced to send the Waterfront payment back for more information. It was later included in the DA’s investigation into her conduct.
The Steenhuisen commission
During the course of the last year, Selfe visited the caucus and told them that, because of the volume of complaints the federal executive was receiving, a subcommittee led by MP John Steenhuisen would hear submissions from the caucus.
The M&G has spoken to some of the councillors who testified.
De Lille still does not know the names of the councillors who made submissions. She went to court to order the DA to put its record of evidence on the court record. The party has steadfastly refused to release the names of councillors or any evidence it has accrued against De Lille.
For some of those councillors, it was the Waterfront issue coupled with De Lille’s election victory claims that led to the submissions to the Steenhuisen committee.
Her authoritarian leadership style — allegedly referring to people as “stupid” and bullying opposition to her views to stifle dissent — was also cited.
“She’s a strong woman,” a pro-De Lille councillor said.“If a man had called someone stupid, would it be an issue?”
Another claimed some previous mayors “were 10 times worse” but never received the treatment she had.
But her critics say they had been victimised. “We were labelled as trying to stop transformation in the city. We were told we had to be left behind because we were stupid and useless,” one councillor said.
On the other side, De Lille’s supporters say they have been harassed and threatened by colleagues who have lost confidence in the mayor. Their own attempts to lay charges with the federal executive have come to nought. Thirty-eight of them signed a letter imploring Maimane and Selfe to take action.
Their complaints never formed part of the Steenhuisen report. De Lille sent a complaint about a voice note indicating moves to get deputy mayor Ian Neilson “in the hot seat”but the complaint was allegedly never taken up.
Some of her supporters are members of the “black caucus”. They say they have been sidelined and De Lille targeted for challenging the “old guard”. They allege that her critics are determined to hold onto their positions. They concede that there are black councillors who support her.
“They are the safe blacks,” one councillor says. “The ones who the party can manipulate.”
The factionalism had still to reach its zenith. That would come in February when De Lille faced her first motion of no confidence.
The UB40s and the 107s
De Lille survived the motion with the support of the opposition parties in council. In her own caucus, just 39 people voted against the motion, 107 voted against her.
A little while later, the names of the 39 were leaked and posted on a Facebook page called HandsOffJPSmith. The 39 named themselves the UB40s — they laugh when asked whether it is because of the band. They named their opposition in the other faction the 107s. The number refers to the number of votes but it is also the emergency number for city services.
The factionalism has been viewed as a spat between De Lille and Smith but Smith has denied the claim, saying he does not enjoy such support from the caucus.
“I’m not a likeable person, I’m a hard worker. I don’t have cocktail parties in my office, I don’t have braais. My colleagues are my colleagues and never my friends,” Smith said.
“I don’t have that influence.”
In May, De Lille’s membership was terminated but the Western Cape high court ruled that she be reinstated in June.
A little over a month later, the caucus was ready to do battle again. Another motion of no confidence had been tabled in council and the lines were drawn between De Lille’s supporters and critics.
Then, in a surprise move, Maimane told the caucus that De Lille would face a disciplinary hearing and the motion was withdrawn.
With the promise of a disciplinary hearing, councillors readied to testify before the party’s disciplinary committee. But then the promise was broken: De Lille had decided to resign, and the charges were dropped.
Her critics believe their names have been tarnished. Her supporters say the same. A hearing would have allowed the SMS to be entered as evidence. It would also have allowed those alleging racism to air their grievances.
“Of course she resigned, she’s been bullied continuously and her name has been drawn through the mud,” one of her supporters says.
“It’s got to a stage where service delivery issues have been affected. In the last two years we haven’t been able to make a difference like we should,” says another.
Some hope De Lille leaving will unify the caucus, others —on both sides —are more bitter than ever before. Only time will tell whether the price of the deal was worth the cost.