Crispian Olver, A House Divided: The Feud that Took Cape Town to the Brink (Jonathan Ball, 2019)

CAPE Town has a reputation, based on consistent clean audits and much evidence of administrative efficiency, as the best-run local authority in South Africa. Yet, the recent water crisis was handled in shambolic fashion after the temporary paralysis of the Democratic Alliance (DA) administration headed by Mayor Patricia de Lille for six months in 2016–17. The positive image had suddenly became sullied by much dirty laundry soon after the DA’s massive election victory of 2016. The spectre of Day Zero with a major city of international importance grinding to a halt for lack of water was deeply disturbing, especially since water shortages had long been predicted. (There is a view that Day Zero was a brilliant move: Cape Town’s water consumption has been halved.) Had Cape Town’s record had been artificially inflated by deplorable standards of governance elsewhere?

Chippy Olver, man of many parts and once a local student activist, sets out to discern the underlying causes of Cape Town’s malaise. His basic interest is power: how is it exercised, by whom, and for whose benefit? With an interest in dysfunctional local government, and experience from deployment by the ANC to sort out the chronically corrupted Nelson Mandela Bay (Port Elizabeth) municipality, he was well qualified to do so. Refused official access to city hall, his book is based on multiple interviews, the work of investigative journalists and his own informed instincts. It is a robust, fascinating, measured and plausible account.

One of the most disturbing tales is the undermining of many of the city’s most dedicated and competent administrators. This comes as no surprise. In this day and age, especially in South Africa, dedication, competence and independent professional thinking, and a refusal to compromise them, are often a quick route to disciplinary action and some form of dismissal. Many institutions have been through morale-sapping, repetitious restructuring that has destroyed a positive culture of mutual responsibility and co-operation. Independent professionals are replaced by political appointees. And in situations that appear to any rational mind as inexplicable, the trail often leads straight to rent-seeking and corruption. This is what Olver clearly has in mind when he set off on his quest to explain Cape Town’s apparently sudden failures.

The political background is obviously a major factor. The DA’s electoral boost in 2016 was founded on its merger with De Lille’s Independent Democrats. But Olver argues that it had never been fully consummated by fusing traditions of conservatism and liberalism with radicalism and social democracy that were often painted in racial tones. During the later meltdown of De Lille’s second term as mayor this enabled accusations, whether true or false, of an old guard thwarting the liberating ambitions of transformers. Was this is a right-wing coup or the result of populist maladministration; or perhaps a mix of both? The fracture lines were multiple.

And there are strange inconsistencies: De Lille the populist was a champion of the private sector and known to believe that the market knows best. Conversely, it is also argued that the clean audit culture stifled initiative and favoured compliance over long-term transformation and delivery.

There is also the matter of personalities. Helen Zille, mayor prior to 2001, was a tough operator but inclined to listen to advisers and experts and absorb their work into her policies. Olver goes so far as to call her approach collegial. De Lille was the very opposite and he digs deep into the dictionary for words to describe her bullying, undemocratic ways that seem often to have involved shocking levels of unpleasantness and incivility. Olver suggests that De Lille took matters too personally and distrusted anyone who stood up to her. (He goes on to use another dozen pejorative words to describe her behaviour.) Her administrative style was notoriously unsubtle and built around top-down authoritarianism: micromanagers shouldered aside professional administrators and this was particularly noticeable in the area of human settlements and land planning. Confusingly, Zille seems to have supported De Lille during the meltdown.

This frames the recent history of property development in the Cape Town metro. Olver points out that the sector tends not to deliver salaries, but sporadic windfalls that make participants open to irregularities. It is well known that property development is a channel for money laundering by Cape Town’s rampant organised crime networks. Various stages of regulatory approval regarding development can unlock vast wealth for comparatively little initial cost, making them highly charged and prone to meddling.

Some of the failures and their fall out have been spectacular. Wescape went ahead against a raft of professional planning objections and was condemned as fantasy before it collapsed financially. Designs upon the Philippi Horticultural Area were met by adverse advice regarding the environment, food security, heritage and bulk services, and appeared to be backed by unwarranted political interference and financial irregularity. Purchase of former AECI land at Paardevlei (Somerset West) was a blatant case of fiscal dumping. Between them these three development failures featured a nuclear evacuation zone, a flood plain and contaminated land. None of them foregrounded the real needs of the poor or promoted spatial integration. Olver asks rhetorically what the real motives might have been.

Another of his research investigations involved civic associations in Observatory, Bo-Kaap, Camps Bay and Sea Point where he uncovered attempts of varying subtlety and success by property development interests to capture grassroots organisations.

Having resigned as Western Cape DA leader, De Lille fell back on her Cape Town power base. She was recalled as early as December 2017 but finally ejected only in October 2018. Her behaviour typified that of a ‘vengeful dictator’, lashing out at ‘liberals’ amid yet another planning debacle, this time the Foreshore project; poorly conceived, lacking detailed criteria and wide open to corruption and manipulation at a time when Capetonians were faced by the prospect of dry taps. One of De Lille’s former allies, Craig Kesson, accused her of condoning ‘systemic governance failures’ and blew the whistle on her methods of maladministration. She had inherited a relatively well-run city and then undermined and neglected the very objectives she falsely claimed to espouse, such as spatial integration.

Olver is not the only commentator to criticise the flawed South African local government model that fails to separate the political sufficiently from the administrative. This creates multiple lines of accountability and confuses short- and long-term views. He comes to no final conclusions about Cape Town and admits it is relatively clean, but speculates that given the DA’s close links with property developers the reason for inexplicable decisions and behaviour might lie in party political funding. Cape Town, some might say predictably, has ways of obscuring channels of money and influence.

Few emerge well from this saga whether at national, local government or party political (that is, DA) level. The clear victims are independent professionals who have had a rough ride in post-apartheid South Africa with many opting for freelance employment or emigration; and of course, and as always, the poor and marginalised.