27/06/2018 12:46 BST | Updated 27/06/2018 12:46 BST

De Lille And The DA's Unsolvable Paradox

'De Lille's victory tells the public nothing about the veracity of the serious claims against her.'

Jaco Marais/ Foto24/ Gallo Images/ Getty Images
Patricia de Lille addresses the media after her ousting as Cape Town mayor by the Democratic Alliance on May 08, 2018.

On Wednesday the Western Cape High Court ordered that the termination of Patricia de Lille's DA membership by the party was illegal and invalid. The court's ruling in favour of De Lille is a definite win for the mayor.

Even though this court battle is over, De Lille's victory may be short-lived, as the DA has said that they will be appealing the judgment as relations between the mayor and the party are strained.

If the party had evidence of wrongdoing, it should put those claims to the accused, they should be given a fair chance to respond, and a conclusion should be reached.Gareth van Onselen, IRR

HuffPost askedGareth van Onselen, head of politics and governance at the South African Institute of Race Relations (IRR) to put into context what today's court judgment bodes for the party and De Lille going forward.

This is a Q&A with Van Onselen.

Q: Many argue that the DA made the wrong move here, and that this process should perhaps not have happened. What is your take on this?

The DA was obliged to act against what it believed was serious evidence of wrongdoing, both in the city of Cape Town and with regards to Patricia de Lille's political leadership. It clearly made some serious errors with regards to how it went about responding to that evidence. The DA has said it will appeal today's decision.

But even if it were to win a successful appeal, much damage has been done to its credibility on this issue. When things get complex like this in politics, it is helpful to revert to the obvious: if the party had evidence of wrongdoing, it should put those claims to the accused, they should be given a fair chance to respond, and a conclusion should be reached.

The DA is now back to square one. The problem with that is that Patricia de Lille has at no point accounted for the evidence against her. Did she send that SMS to Xanthea Limberg instructing her how to vote for the city manager, for example? Those sorts of important facts become lost in the convoluted mess that has been the DA's disciplinary procedure. We still don't know the answer.

Q: Where does this judgment leave the issue of ensuring that public officials are held to account for their actions while in office?

The problems with holding public officials to account are big, and far exceed the DA. Jacob Zuma has abused the court system for over a decade in order to avoid answering damning allegations against him. Procedure rules in South Africa.

Any disciplinary process must be fair, obviously, but it is clearly exceedingly difficult in South Africa to actually get to the matter at hand, because there are so many procedural avenues the accused can follow, and take issue with, before accounting.

That is not to excuse the DA — it appears to have made some serious errors — but De Lille's victory tells the public nothing about the veracity of the serious claims against her; only that the DA made a mess of getting to the point where they can be fairly interrogated.

Q: De Lille has been at loggerheads with the party for more than a year now, over alleged misconduct in the city of Cape Town. So what does this mean for her? She has emphasised throughout that she wants to clear her name — where to from here?

The city of Cape Town is currently investigating various claims of malfeasance against De Lille in her capacity as mayor. These claims have been scrutinised by Bowmans and found to constitute a bona fide case of wrongdoing. This is separate from the party allegations against De Lille contained in the Steenhuisen Report.

We will have to wait and see what that city investigation says. It is unclear where it is in its investigation. It will make a finding and a recommendation — and you can be fairly sure that if it is adverse for De Lille, she will also take that to court. So as long as she is mayor and all the allegations against her remain unresolved, the DA and De Lille are going to remain at loggerheads.

Q: How will this affect the party's electoral fortunes going ahead?

The implications of the De Lille judgment today are more acute, as far as the DA is concerned, in Western Cape, where Patrica de Lille's support is strongest. It is unlikely to have any meaningful national repercussions, aside from some damage to the DA's brand as fair and impartial.

As for the actual electoral consequences in Western Cape, it is almost impossible to say exactly what they will be in particular. The DA has a number of threats to its 60 percent majority in that province. The drought did damage, the fallout over Helen Zille did damage, the De Lille matter did damage; all of these are simultaneous threats.

De Lille will be a contributing factor, but quite where it begins and ends is difficult to determine without in-depth market research. As long as the DA and De Lille remain locked in a war of attrition with each other, the damage and threat will remain.

One of the biggest consequences for the DA will be its effect on turnout. Voters hate messy internal disputes. It turns them off and tends to result in apathy on election day. It also means they do not register in such big numbers. All of this will eat into the DA's ability to win the province with a safe majority.

Importantly, there will also be unseen internal consequences for the DA. The party will want to know how the federal legal commission got this so wrong, and who is responsible. And there is already a lot of election pressure on the DA leadership — Western Cape is absolutely critical to the DA's national percentage. Along with Gauteng, it's responsible for 62 percent of all DA votes.

This means it will take this very seriously, and that means pressure. The judgment today could result in some serious internal DA unhappiness.

Q: Are the internal politics within the DA repairable — or does this bode ill for the party in 2019?

Yes, they are repairable. But to repair them, this issue must be brought to a conclusion, and quickly. However, it is very difficult to see how — without some kind of political deal that bypasses any legal procedure — that is possible.

De Lille will now have to face a disciplinary hearing. She wants it in public. The DA does not. That might also go to court. And so it goes, on and on. Every element of the procedure will be fought by De Lille.

The whole thing represents something of an unsolvable paradox for the DA. It wants De Lille out, but almost every avenue it pursues seems to result in her becoming more entrenched in her position. A

The consequence for the public is a convoluted mess, where it is hard to tell who is right and who is wrong on any particular issue, and all that remains is the general perception that the DA is at war with itself.