As political reincarnations go, few have been as radical as that of Patricia De Lille, the 60-year-old firebrand politician who will today be sworn in as mayor of Cape Town. She is a woman to watch: an outsider who could fundamentally change the face of South African politics.
Twenty years ago, after scaling the trade union ladder at a Western Cape paint factory, she chanted the pan-Africanist slogan, “One settler, one bullet” even as others had decided it would be sensible to dismantle apartheid peacefully. Later, as an independent MP she faced death threats as she campaigned for clarity over a multi-billion euro arms deal that allegedly benefited senior members of the African National Congress government. Nelson Mandela described her as his favourite opposition politician and the South African army made her an honorary colonel.
Today, the white “settlers” who once lived in fear of De Lille – but who still control much of South Africa’s wealth – are among her biggest fans, and as mayor of Cape Town she now has five years in which to prove she can be more than an irritant.
To claim the mayoral chain she had to shed her freedom and merge her plucky Independent Democrats (ID) with Helen Zille’s Democratic Alliance (DA) – a party that speaks to the minds of many South Africans but has never won the hearts of the poor, black majority. The DA has limited liberation credentials, is pro-market, well-organised and supported chiefly by the 20 per cent of the population who are white and “coloured” (mixed-race and indigenous South Africans).
Zille – a white former mayor of Cape Town and now premier of the Western Cape – claims her province is going to be the best run in the world. Analysts see the pairing of the two women as a formidable double act in which Zille will soothe the conservative bankrollers of the party (the rich whites) while the energetic De Lille gets to work winning over poor blacks.
It won’t be easy: in the run-up to the elections, the DA came under fire for installing toilets without walls in Cape Town townships, sparking angry protests.
The ANC has had few rivals since the first democratic elections in 1994. Some people dismiss the DA, saying it is tainted for being dominated by the white and “coloured” minority. But analyst Judith February gives them more of a chance. “De Lille has integrity and principles. Her instinct will be to help the most vulnerable and to start organising in the townships. Zille has made it clear she will give her the political cover. Their relationship is the key.” February argues that South African voters are far less obsessed by colour than are their politicians. “Studies show that people follow class more than race. They vote for people they can identify with and those whom they believe will make a difference,” she says. “De Lille is energetic and I expect her main wish is to go out there and convince them.”
Former paint factory worker De Lille could be about to give South African politics a much-needed respray.