Patricia de Lille – South Africa

Patricia de Lille – South Africa

Date: July 2, 2012
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Who is Patricia de Lille?

She cut her teeth as a unionist and went on to become a firebrand of radical liberation politics. She left the Pan Africanist Congress (PAC) to form her own political party, the Independent Democrats (ID), who soared to fame in the 2004 elections, attracting a strong following among liberal white and coloured voters. She has continued down her path of political leadership, being voted the mayor of Cape Town in 2011.

Patricia De Lille confesses that her favourite pastime is playing golf – the old boys game that she strongly recommends to all women who work under her sort of stress.

The press has commented on her increasingly corporate image. But she continues to live in a modest suburban home with her husband, a retired bus driver, who does his share of the chores in an establishment where there is no hired domestic help. She has never asked for his “permission” to be in politics. They are comrades who respect each other and each other’s space.

The wysiwyg (what you see is what you get) of South African politics, De Lille insists that there are no contradictions in her life: just a deep passion for her country.

Describing her as “a strong, principled woman,” Nelson Mandela has declared de Lille his “favourite opposition politician”. De Lille’s biographer Charlene Smith, who began her task with scepticism but ended it with a healthy respect for a woman who “works hard and parties even harder”, says that de Lille, “speaks for those who love South Africa beyond themselves.”

Less than a year since its formation, the ID outperformed the New National Party (NNP) of South Africa’s old white guard, and became a thorn in the flesh of the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA), garnering 1.73 percent of the national vote and close to ten percent of the votes in the Western and Northern Cape provinces.

One of the few opposition parties not bogged down by the baggage of history, race and ethnicity, the ID became one of the most talked about phenomenon in an otherwise uneventful election that saw the African National Congress (ANC) strengthen its overall majority to 70 percent in the 14 April polls.

Who is Patricia De Lille and what is her significance over the longer term? In between answering two incessant cellular phones, giving at least three radio interviews and coaching a party official on how to address a gathering of businesswomen in Sandton, De Lille attempted to answer this question.

Extolling the virtues of the “digital democracy” which helped to establish her party in such a short time, De Lille emphasised that the ID was one of the first political parties to set up a system to link SMS messages from the public to its website. Regarded as one of the most accessible and polite South African politicians, De Lille makes it a point to scroll down these messages each evening and answer as many as she can.

Her appeal undoubtebly stems from her straight shooting, no nonsense style: “As I have gone up and down the length and breadth of the country, I have found that there are many who live in fear of speaking up. My message is: Fear no one. Speak up,” she says.


De Lille’s independence and courage to speak up shaped South Africa’s political scene in 2009, when she led the call for an investigation that eventually uncovered the Arms Deal.


As a parliamentarian, De Lille catapulted to fame by being the first to blow the whistle on irregularities in the government arms deal. She has also been a consistent critic of President Thabo Mbeki’s “quiet diplomacy” with Zimbabwe, an approach that she calls a “special invention to deal with a friend” at odds with South Africa’s stance on human rights. She also continually took the government to task on its HIV/AIDS policy. De Lille and her party officials publicly took AIDS tests. She has personally adopted an AIDS orphan.

She maintains that one of the reasons for forming the ID is “exactly to challenge race-based politics with a message that is universal to South Africans”. De Lille predicts that ten years from now, with a new generation of voters not bogged down by the past, voting patterns will change.

According to de Lille’s biographer Charlene Smith: “More than any other politician I think that she has an all-embracing South African identity. She doesn’t see us as colours or genders or quotas or sexual identities, she sees us as people to get on with. She is the founding member of the ‘if you don’t like it, fix it’ society.”

Smith argues that being a woman has worked to de Lille’s advantage. “In a hugely sexist society, men admire strong women. They don’t want to marry us, but they admire us for taking positions they would fear because of considerations like jobs and status. Women are more likely to think, ‘damn the status and job, I’m doing this because it’s the right thing to do’.”

But Smith is critical of De Lille for not actively wooing the women’s vote. De Lille comes with plenty of first hand experience of what it means to be a woman in South Africa, including the “shame” of falling pregnant in high school, as well as the brutal rape and murder of her youngest sister.

She acknowledges that women did almost all the backroom work for her campaign. Although the party did not have a quota for women, three out of the seven ID members of parliament were women. But de Lille concedes that she downplayed gender issues in her campaign because “I did not want to come across as pushing a feminist line.”  Analysts say that the ID’s weak stance on gender issues reflects the broader lack of a clear political platform. As Bentley puts it, “it is clear what the ID does not stand for. What is not clear is what it stands for.”  While the DA and ID initially had an adversarial relationship, in 2010, through meetings with the executive, the two parties merged, giving de Lille a double party membership.

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