Cape Town mayor Patricia De Lille File picture: Cindy Waxa
Cape Town mayor Patricia De Lille File picture: Cindy Waxa
Patricia de Lille has gone from activist (1994) to mayor of Cape Town  but shes still fighting the good fight. File picture: : Leon Muller
Patricia de Lille has gone from activist (1994) to mayor of Cape Town  but shes still fighting the good fight. File picture: : Leon Muller

Cape Town - Patricia de Lille has a well-used copy of the constitution bound in black leather. It looks at first glance like a New Testament - and she consults it as though it were just that and she a believer.

Right now, though, she is drawing attention to its limitations.

“When we were drafting the Bill of Rights (in the Codesa negotiations) I learned all about first and second generation rights,” she says, flipping to a place-marked passage. She reads out what it says about the right to housing, to clean water, to education.

“Except for the rights of children,” she goes on, “they say all shall have access to housing… access to water… access to education and so on. These are first generation rights… Second generation rights are absolute… children shall have this and they shall have that.”

The first generation rights she explains are effectively conditional, and made more conditional still by section 36 of the constitution which creates the conditions for some rights to override others.

“At the end of the day, when you factor in the limitations and the overrides, only the second generation rights have real force. The rest are issues we ‘parked’ in the negotiations because we couldn’t come to a consensus on wording and then when we finally did, they got weakened.”

It is the first time I have heard anybody nitpicking at the constitution – almost universally considered one of the great public documents of modern times – and one of its drafters to boot.

But this is De Lille as I have known her for more than 15 years, since the time that our mutual researches into the arms deal first brought us into contact, long before she scandalised Parliament by accusing the ANC-led government of corruption around the packages, setting off the biggest scandal yet in democratic South Africa’s short history.

She simply does not accept the easy answer. She does not shy away from the consequences of asking the hard ones. She is not always right, but if she believes something, she will speak to it – and devil take the hindmost.

The same De Lille who, on another memorable occasion, invoked parliamentary privilege to claim various cabinet ministers and senior ANC party functionaries had been double agents for the apartheid regime – before being shouted down and hounded out of the house.

Since those dangerous days De Lille has mellowed on the outside, at least. The onetime firebrand PAC maverick has segued into Madame Mayor of the DA-run City of Cape Town, mandated to hold dual party membership by her own party, the Independent Democrats, which opted to become junior partner with the country’s official opposition.

There is an irony here that speaks to what is best about the last 20 years of South Africa’s history, the way the society has been forced to mellow and to grow by the brute necessities of co-existence.

While De Lille confesses she never arrived at a point in the negotiations process where she trusted the intentions or the motivations of the National Party’s politicians (though she makes an exception for one of the officials attached to the delegation), she calls some survivors from the apartheid regime colleagues today – political chameleons like Tertius Delport who moved from the old National Party to the New National Party, finally folding their political platforms into the edifices of the DA.

For De Lille, it’s the realpolitik of opposition – fighting on its own terms the so-called broad church of the ANC, itself historically an alliance of socialist, communist and nationalist elements united by a shared commitment to ending racist oppression.

And though the still feisty De Lille does not volunteer any ringing endorsements of the bona fides of her newfound comrades in arms, she still finds it in herself to work with the likes of JP Smith in her governance of the city. She learned the hard way as she wryly recounts.

After the unbanning of resistance movements, the position taken by De Lille, whose own politics had been forged in the trade union movement and philosophically informed by Black Consciousness and Pan Africanism, and her comrades in the PAC was to refuse to negotiate with the apartheid regime inside South Africa on the basis there could be no level playing field where all the power was held by one party to the talks.

She soon discovered that this was true also beyond the borders of South Africa. In the early 1990s, a discussion forum was organised between the National Party government and the PAC in Nigeria. Arriving in Nigeria on a BA flight that, tortuously, took them via London over a period measured in days not hours, from Johannesburg, the PAC delegation – which included stalwart Barney Desai, current Deputy Chief Justice Dikgang Moseneke and the chairman of president Jacob Zuma’s Arms Procurement Commission, Judge Willie Seriti – was shoved into a fall-down Sheraton for accommodation. From there they were delivered to the venue for their meeting in the capital, Abuja.

There they found a well-rested Pik Botha, then South Africa’s minister of foreign affairs, together with a Nigerian government delegation whose speakers proceeded to scold the PAC for intransigence, before Botha, as she remembers it, picked up where they left off, “treating us like children”.

That, as De Lille remembers it, was more or less that. Except that Botha offered the PAC representatives a lift home. He’d chartered an aircraft for the occasion and there was plenty of space…

Thereafter, the PAC did join the negotiations process in South Africa, and De Lille herself, among other roles, served as the party’s representative in drafting the Bill of Rights.

Not that she is self-congratulatory.

“You must remember we were doing this from a zero rights base. I also had experience of suffering from having no rights. The result was I think, with hindsight, we overdid it. The way we empowered criminals and prisoners, that has created problems that we are still dealing with today.”

Similarly, when she talks about being sworn into Parliament in 1994, her memory is not of triumph but of a certain surreality and discomfort.

“All my life I’d fought the system, now I realised I was part of the system.”

What shines through is that, despite the establishment position she holds, she has not ceased to be that crusading activist from Kensington, a worker and trade unionist for 15 years at Plascon’s paint factories, and she is still far from entering into any comfort zone.

When I ask her about establishing the Independent Democrats in 2003, abandoning an increasingly fractious and self-defeating PAC, she shrugs.

It was a challenge: “I wanted to be the first woman in this country to start a political party.”

And 10 years later? “Now I want to strengthen the political alternative in South Africa, going into a front with mandates from our own parties to take this country forward. There is still a lot of work to be done.”

She speaks here of creating jobs or at least the kind of social environment that would generate jobs – that is to say creating opportunities but also addressing education to nurture young adults who could meaningfully take advantage of opportunities. But in the same breath she prioritises getting rid of Zuma from the presidency. “That man is hurting this country,” she says, with finality.

But, in passing, she says she will continue to engage with the Arms Procurement Commission, set up to probe those festering allegations of corruption in the arms deal, but has no real expectation that Judge Seriti will deliver anything like the truth.

In 2009 though, before the commission was established, she expressed herself more comprehensively in an opinion piece:

“Am I angry? Of course I am angry. I am angry because the majority of our people are not seeing the warning signs that are coming from the ANC, a liberation party that has no respect for the constitution and the rule of law and is prepared to erode both just so that one man can become the leader of our country.”

As I leave I notice her somewhat irate next meeting is with a white alderman. If I could I would have stayed as a fly on the wall.

Weekend Argus