Port Elizabeth - The Democratic Alliance (DA) and its internal - and sometimes very public - disputes with senior members and staff in recent months has lifted the lid on the way in which the party may use policy to engage in political purges.
Critics say the party has become synonymous with a particular modus operandi for the way in which it fires or sidelines senior members and staff who do not toe the party line. Former Cape Town mayor Patricia de Lille's bitter and drawn out ousting from the party is held up as a prime example.
The DA’s constitution provides the basis of termination of membership of members and public representatives. And senior research specialist in democracy at the Human Science Research Council, Professor Joleen Steyn Kotze, observes that the constitution is drafted in such a way that there is scope for wide interpretation and that the power to interpret is in the domain of the Federal Legal Executive.
Kotze points to political parties using party policy to engage in political purges and explains that when political parties grow, factionalism and disagreements on the direction the party should take begin to emerge.
"It depends on who the stronger faction is, and through policy, parties may engage in political purges to try and secure a unified political agenda and leadership. Thus political parties may use a broad interpretation of misconduct (as in the case of the DA) or being an ill-disciplined member (as in the case of the African National Congress) to purge those who may challenge the line of a dominant or stronger faction within the party."
Last week, Nelson Mandela Bay councillor assistant Quinton Baatjies was handed a letter terminating his services, seven months after his boss, DA "turncoat" councillor Neville Higgins was given his marching orders.
Higgins' membership of the DA was terminated in September last year after he and Trevor Louw turned against the party and sided with the new Nelson Mandela Bay coalition government.
According to DA chief whip in the Metro, Werner Senekal, Baatjies was a political employee and his contract came to an end because Higgins no longer held office.
Senekal added that "credible evidence" showing that Baatjies was working against the DA's cause had also been discovered. However, no internal disciplinary process had been pursued as there was "no need for it".
"Staff are appointed by the party and staff essentially will be removed by the party as well. Usually it's a simple matter where a councillor gets elected for five years [and] you remain in your administrative position for five years, therefore we, as a party, decided because Mr Baatjies was working against the party, we would terminate his services," said Senekal.
Baatjies, who worked in ward 37 in Bethelsdorp, said he was unaware of the allegations leveled against him and that he had been handed a termination letter out of the blue earlier last week. Baatjies believed the way in which he was fired was "unfair".
"Edmund Van Vuuren and Rano Kayser promised that I would stay in office and help when a new councillor was elected. In September last year, it was a Sunday, after Higgins and Louw were fired, they gathered all the supporting staff in the northern areas and they promised that nobody would lose their jobs," said Baatjies.
According to Kotze, it is not clear whether due process was followed in the case of Baatjies. Whilst the argument is that Baatjies’ contract came to an end as Higgins was no longer in office may be advanced, there are also allegations that Baatjies was working against the party.
"This links in with the broad interpretation of misconduct highlighted earlier," she added.
But Kotze also observes that the DA’s constitution states that all persons must be informed of all allegations against him or her and given an opportunity to rebut those allegations, as well as be given an opportunity to submit evidence of mitigating factors.
"In this particular scenario it is not clear whether termination was based on labour principles or whether there was political misconduct. It would thus remain to be seen whether this is a labour dispute or a measure of political purge," she added.
Last year, the DA-led coalition government lost control of the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality when one of its own councillors, Victor Manyati, turned on the party and abstained from a vote which saw the ousting of former mayor Athol Trollip. A court battle subsequently arose over a technicality around Manyati's DA's membership, with the party claiming that Manyati's membership had ceased immediately based on his public utterances at the council meeting that he would resign.
The court, however, pointed to "flaws in the political decision-making of the DA".
The high court ruling stated that in terms of the DA's own constitution the party guaranteed the rights of its members to principles of a fair process and further found the party to be in breach of its own constitution. The court found that an impromptu termination of Manyati's membership during a lunch adjournment at the council meeting was premature.
The DA's bitter internal fight with former Cape Town mayor Patricia De Lille played out over a protracted period and in June last year the Western Cape High Court set aside her dismissal from the party for being unprocedural and inconsistent with the DA constitution.
Subsequently, De Lille agreed to resign as mayor in exchange for the DA dropping internal and untested disciplinary charges against her relating to corruption.
According to Kotze, the manner in which the DA handles internal disputes, most notably the De Lille controversy, could undermine the view that it is a unified party able to challenge the ANC in the upcoming elections.
"It could also cement perceptions in the mind of the voter that the party will become susceptible to the same leadership challenges (as seen with COPE and the ANC), and as such, may either stay away from the polls or cast a vote for another party."
Caucus chair in the Ekurhuleni council, Shadow Shabangu, was cleared by DA Gauteng bosses of sexually harassing a fellow DA councillor Thina Bambeni, even though they had not followed the correct disciplinary procedures including not hearing Bambeni's side of the story, the Sunday Times reported recently.
Bambeni was then removed by the DA leadership from the party’s list of parliamentary candidates due to what the DA called "unfounded allegations" of sexual harassment against senior DA councillors.
Bambeni was quoted as saying that she had "lost faith in the party’s processes" and believed they were "prejudged".
She went as far to accuse Chairperson of DA Federal Executive, James Selfe, of attempting to subject her to "apartheid-style interrogations."
Earlier this year, DA MP Gwen Ngwenya resigned as the party's policy head because she did "not believe that the party takes policy seriously".
African News Agency (ANA)