KNYSNA NEWS - Among much jubilation in the local DA camp after the Western Cape High Court's dismissal of an application by former Knysna mayor Mark Willemse to stop his dismissal from the party last year (and thus as mayor of Knysna), the DA earlier this week boldly announced that it would now "take back government" in the town.
The victory dance was somewhat dampened however, when the Willemse camp announced minutes before going to print this week that it will be appealing the judgement.
Willemse said the process of removing party membership for reasons of a personal vendetta and without due process – as he believes is the case in his situation – should be challenged. "That is what I have instructed my legal team to do," Willemse said.
The DA terminated Willemse's membership on 30 September last year following months of uncertainty, in-fighting and municipal turmoil after Willemse voted "with his conscience" to dismiss former mayor Eleanore Bouw-Spies in a motion of no confidence in 2018.
After Bouw-Spies was deposed, DA members left the council chambers without voting for a new mayor. Willemse was nominated for the position and became mayor unopposed as no other councillor was nominated.
After surviving two votes of no confidence by his fellow caucus members, Willemse remained as mayor until his party membership was terminated, which immediately cost him his position as mayor and left his Ward 9 without a councillor. Willemse then sought relief from the Western Cape High Court in the form of an interdict to declare that he was still a member of the DA and had not ceased to be executive mayor of Knysna.
'Parties at core of our democracy'
The court however found that the termination of Willemse's DA membership was valid. On Thursday last week, acting judge Sievers dismissed his application with costs, stating that while Willemse was entitled to vote with his conscience, it did not mean he could escape the "sanction it invites". "Political parties are at the core of our democracy," Sievers said. "In order to function as a true political party they require the power to, if necessary, expel members for failing to adhere to party decisions."
The judge explained that Willemse voted against the previous DA mayor in a motion of no confidence supported by opposition parties. "Mr Willemse then took the position of mayor himself without his party's official sanction and thereafter proceeded to appoint non-DA members to his mayoral committee," Sievers said.
He did not comment on the fact that Willemse had been ordered by a member of the DA leadership to save the ANC majority from taking power in council after the DA members left the chambers. Which Willemse did by accepting the mayoral seat after being nominated. "Unsurprisingly Mr Willemse lost the confidence of the DA federal executive and the Knysna caucus," Sievers told the court.
DA to field a new candidate
The town's DA constituency head, Dion George, said this week the DA would field a candidate for the mayoral position as, following the conclusion of the court case, council is now in a position to elect a new mayor. He also said the IEC would soon set a by-election date for Willemse's vacant Ward 9 seat.
A response to this was issued yesterday by Knysna Independent Party (KIM) leader Susan Campbell who pointed out that the council had ample opportunity to elect a mayor for nearly six months to date, and had not done so. Bolstering this week's ministerial briefing that cast doubt on whether governmental gatherings would retain their current status, Campbell said, "I wonder if there will be any by-elections with this virus crisis at present." She said should Willemse succeed in his appeal he would be reinstated as mayor.
No public feedback seemed to curb the enthusiasm of George, who added Knysna Municipality's current financial woes into the mix. Although Willemse is no longer mayor, George said, he should be held accountable for the gradual financial meltdown in the municipality that occurred during his tenure and culminated in a cash-flow shortage in December 2019, months after he was dismissed. "The provincial government has initiated an investigation and we will take any necessary action thereafter. Knysna's administration is now heavily impacted by incapable ANC cadres deployed under Willemse's watch," George said.
'Make their own accountable'
Willemse this week responded: "Before I was dismissed as member of the DA, the municipal cash-flow projection was sitting at approximately R50-million positive and that was the last I heard of the cash flow in September last year. For the DA to blame me, they should make their own councillors accountable for what happened at the municipality," he said.
He added that when he was fired, the mayoral committee was disbanded, resulting in the loss of oversight by the experienced chairs of the portfolio committees. "From the moment I left the municipality my hands were tied and the council, including the DA councillors, was responsible for exercising oversight over the finances of the municipality," he said.
In the meantime, the court's decision has been criticised by several residents and other political parties including KIM. The party's Campbell said the ruling would not only serve to discourage ordinary citizens from defending the SA Bill of Rights, but also allow political parties to remove elected public representatives "autocratically".
'Our courts will remain on the sideline'
"Nothing will prevent a caucus from using the clause to remove a mayor who is trying to stop corruption, under the guise that they have lost confidence in him/her," Campbell opined. "If this judgment were allowed to stand, our courts will remain on the sideline while we have no option but to wait for the next election or by-election to show our displeasure and vote out a political party or representative. A general election happens every five years and a by-election takes about three months. Knysna has experienced how much damage can be done to a town in just three months."
She explained that the DA triggered the controversial recall, or "De Lille clause," to terminate Willemse's membership, resulting in him losing his council seat and leaving Ward 9 without a ward councillor and Knysna without a mayor. "Willemse challenged the constitutionality of the draconian clause, as well as the applicability thereof."
According to Campbell, Sievers took nearly six weeks to deliver his judgment. Campbell commented that the constitutional principles involved are intricate, "particularly the relationship between a duly elected political representative, his political party and the constituents they represent", she said. "In Sievers's judgment, he compared the relationship between Willemse, an elected ward councillor, and the DA to that between any voluntary association and a member. "No distinction is made by Sievers between a ward councillor, who is directly elected, and a councillor on a party list," she pointed out.
Willemse was ordered to pay the legal costs.
'We bring you the latest Knysna, Garden Route news'