Mayor Patricia de Lille

Mayor Patricia de Lille is not waiting for national leaders to step up to save the planet and protect its people.

The plain-spoken mayor of Cape Town, South Africa’s second most-populous urban area, has embraced the opportunity to make an on-the-ground difference in her coastal city of 3.7 million. She has also become a prominent member of a growing international movement of mayors, including 15 women in the C40 Cities group, that’s determined to address climate change.

Under Mayor de Lille’s leadership, Cape Town has been recognized for being on the leading edge of the world’s cities for its response to global warming, including its climate action plan, efforts to create sustainable communities and water-conservation program.

In our interview, the second in our series Women Mayors Talk Climate Change, Mayor de Lille talks about her efforts to prepare drought-stricken Cape Town for a future of water scarcity and to empower entrepreneurs to meet the challenges of climate change.

And she discusses the special role of women politicians like her — before becoming the mayor in 2011, she was minister of social development for the Western Cape and served as a member of parliament for 15 years — declaring that “women in leadership have a responsibility to design policies, programs and plans that are biased towards women, vulnerable women in our cities.”

Edited interview excerpts follow.

In Cape Town, what are the greatest environmental challenges you’re up against right now? At the Women4Climate conference in March, you mentioned a terrible drought.

Environmentally, it is the drought. It’s the worst in 100 years and, of course, we now have to change our relationship with water. So we have formulated a new plan called the New Normal, where we are planning on the basis that drought will be a permanent feature in the city of Cape Town, and that we have to never get into this situation again. We had a 30-year plan for water, but it was based on the assumption that we will get our full winter rainfall every year. Now that is something of the past. We cannot just rely on rainwater to fill our dams. So in the new plan, I have put together a resilience task team, I have appointed a chief resilience officer, and we have been putting this new plan in place. So that is the key impact of climate change on my city.

Mayor Patricia de Lille solar energy
Mayor de Lille signs an agreement at Dimension Data for generation of solar electricity.

The second one, of course, is carbon emissions. Seventy percent of carbon emissions come from transport. And because of the spacial planning of our city, people have to travel very long distances because they live very far from work opportunities, and this has really increased the carbon emissions in our city. So we started procuring electric buses to help us with carbon reduction. We also have set ourselves a target for 20 percent renewable energy by 2020.

And, we have just taken a decision as a city that we don’t want to invest our money into fossil fuel companies. We want to invest in green energy, sustainability. So that [divestment decision] is the latest that we have done to show our contribution towards saving our planet and saving the world.

When you talk about a New Normal for water, what are you asking citizens to do?  

We have run for the past 2 years a very aggressive water saving campaign, telling our citizens that you can only save water while you have water. And that their relationships, their personal life and the way they deal with water also need to change.

So we set targets for our citizens to reduce their water usage to 100 liters per person per day. Every citizen must have a water budget. Knowing that in your 100 liters of water per day, if you flush the toilet five times, it’s 50 liters gone. And that they should only use water inside their homes, and the message is getting through.

What role can local businesses play in addressing these challenges? And, what about women entrepreneurs in particular. Do you see them stepping up to the challenges?

Anybody can step up to the challenge, whether you are male or female. I think it is the duty of government to create the opportunities for entrepreneurs to take up the initiative themselves, but with the help of government to untap their full potential — because everyone has got potential.

We have just gone through a competition where we asked young entrepreneurs to come forward with their ideas. We then evaluated the ideas, and we’re now providing them with funding, with mentorship and with assistance in how to scale-up their business, how to just manage their business and their business plans. Entrepreneurship is the best way of empowering women so they can help themselves. And in the city of Cape Town, we are working together with many of them to provide whatever assistance they need to make their business a success.

The winner of the competition this year was a young man who is producing vegetables using organic methodology. He’s currently employing six people, and the gardens are all in the urban space within the city. Then, he sells the organic vegetables to restaurants and to big retail stores, and he’s doing quite well. With us giving him an extra 100,000 rand, he’s now able to buy more containers to plant his veggies. And one of the banks will be mentoring him to grow the business and make it more profitable.

Was there an incident or a moment in your life that led you to focus on climate change and the environment, that really inspired you?

Mayor Patricia de Lille of Cape TownSince I became the mayor of the city of Cape Town, I was directly involved and directly witnessed and experienced severe flooding — and now, of course, the severe drought that we have. And it’s very clear to any leader that’s worth his or her salt, that climate change exists and that we all have to mobilize to save the planet so that the next generation can take over from us.

I’m inspired by the work done by mayors around the world in climate change. I’m learning a lot, and they’re learning a lot from the Cape Town experience. Climate change is a reality, and I will continue to do my best as the mayor of the city of Cape Town to make sure that we have got the necessary policies in place, the plans in place and also to make sure that we implement policies that can save our city going into the future.  

Following President Trump’s decision to leave the Paris Agreement, do South Africa and Cape Town remain committed to the agreement and its implementation?

Certainly. I’m supporting all the mayors in America, both red mayors and blue mayors, who continue to implement the Paris Agreement.

From what Trump has shown us, he’s no different from all the national leaders in the world. The only thing that they are good at is to sign agreements and to break agreements. But when it comes to the implementation of those agreements — like the COP 21 Paris Agreement — it is the mayors of cities that are responsible for implementation. And I’m glad to see that most of the mayors in the U.S. — and of course I support and I stand in solidarity with them — will be continuing to implement the Paris Agreement.

What do you think women leaders bring to the table that’s different and important?

I think, first of all, women in leadership have a responsibility to design policies, programs and plans that are biased towards women, vulnerable women in our cities. We bring what I would say is that motherly care to the policy making, to the programs. And although, you know, I can’t say that women are the panacea for all the problems that we deal with due to climate change, I do think that women leaders bring something special, and it’s that motherly instinct in how we deal with and how do we respond and how do we proactively plan so that we can assist our vulnerable sisters who need our protection.

Finally, what’s your ambition for the C40 Women4Climate initiative? What do you think it can accomplish?

Well, it has already accomplished a lot. I think under the leadership of Mayor Anne Hidalgo, and of course the support of [former New York Mayor] Michael Bloomberg and the Bloomberg Philanthropies, there are many programs. And through this Women4Climate initiative there is now another initiative [focused on] how do we respond to the health issues, especially around women, around the world. We’re using the leadership positions that we occupy as women mayors around the world to continually lobby for better conditions for women and, especially, children in society.