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News > Announcements > The Politician: James Selfe

The Politician: James Selfe

The Old Diocesan Editor Tim Richman (1995B) sat down with James Selfe (1972F) to discuss an eventful 2019.
11 Oct 2019
James Selfe at a media briefing, June 2017. Photograph from Gallo Images.
James Selfe at a media briefing, June 2017. Photograph from Gallo Images.


Bishops OD Forum

This is the extended interview with James Selfe that appears in Issue 4 of The Old Diocesan

It’s been a difficult couple of years for the DA, culminating in May in its first electoral losses at the national polls. One figure emerging in prominence to help steady the ship is party veteran James Selfe (1972F), chair of its new governance unit. James has kept company with renowned names of progressive politics in South Africa for 40 years, from Helen Suzman and Zach de Beer to Helen Zille and Mmusi Maimane. He spoke to Tim Richman (1995B) about his career.


On his path to politics:

I developed a political consciousness quite early, and being in politics was all I ever wanted to do. One of my earlier memories was of the Rivonia trial. Our class in Bishops was a very political one – probably my oldest friend, Rob Adam, was imprisoned in the early 1980s for furthering the ends of the ANC; others in the class joined the SACP, COSWAR and even the AWB! [Ed: see our profile of Rob Adam in Issue 2.]
We all joined the causes in which we believed out of a sense of vocation – we had a mission, whether others agreed with it or not. Regrettably, politics has now become a profession: sound bytes have displaced rational and reasoned reasoning; ambition has supplanted duty; social media has confined complex arguments to 280 characters – and we are the poorer for it.
I was undoubtedly influenced by Helen Suzman, for whom I started to work in 1979. She never compromised, got along to get along, or shirked her duty. She went to see for herself – in Dimbaza or Robben Island.  She spoke truth to power. It was she who believed, in the words of Winston Churchill, that “the mood and temper of the public in regard to the treatment of crime and criminals is one of the most unfailing tests of the civilisation of any country”. It is because of her that I still retain the Correctional Services portfolio, as depressing as it is.


On career highlights – and lowlights:

The highlight of my career was being involved in the drafting of the South African constitution(s) both at CODESA and subsequently as a member of the Constitutional Assembly between 1994 and 1996. In fact there are one or two phrases in the Constitution of which I would claim authorship.
As far as low points are concerned, I have for the last 19 and a bit years been Chairperson of the DA Federal Council – in effect, its Secretary-General. During that time, I have had to manage a series of distasteful matters – the departure of the NNP leadership from the DA, the Harksen matter, the so-called “spy scandal” at the City of Cape Town which led to the appointment of the Erasmus Commission, and the spat with Patricia de Lille. But such is the nature of the management of big and complex voluntary organisations, and one is reminded of Bismarck’s comment that “Laws are like sausages. It is better not to see them being made.”


On his new role in the DA’s governance unit:

I will be retiring as the Chairperson of the Federal Council on 20 October, and will then head up the DA’s Governance Unit. We govern the Western Cape province and a number of municipalities, sometimes in very complicated coalitions and co-governance arrangements. We want to demonstrate to the electorate that, where we govern, we do so efficiently and ethically, and that we deliver high quality services to all the inhabitants, and not only to the people who currently vote for us. With the other members of the Governance Unit, I intend to ensure that each one of our governments lives up to those commitments, and to ensure that our successes in those governments are communicated.


On the 2019 National Election results:

It was clear from our polling before the election that we faced a challenge. There were two factors at play: some fearful or angry voters supported extremist movements (the EFF and the FF+), but more significantly some 400,000 voters, who traditionally voted DA, stayed away. We have taken this very much to heart, and are already addressing the shortcomings. We need to tell the electorate in simple and compelling terms what we will do to fix the country.

We not only need to tell the electorate what we can do to fix the country; we need (within our powers and budget) to demonstrate it. Voters need to be able to see, feel and experience the difference when the DA governs. Our governments need to be incubators for innovation in public service and delivery. Some are already. Many still need to up their game.

On Tony Leon’s (supposed) call for the establishment of a new liberal party:

I don’t believe that Tony Leon called for the establishment of a new liberal party – in fact he told me that. He was calling on the DA to become that party again. Helen Zille always said that the DA needed to grow as fast as possible but as slowly as necessary. There is a danger, when one is growing rapidly, as the DA has, that one loses one’s ideological focus and becomes all things to all people. I don’t think the DA did that, but, as I say, we need to tell the electorate in simple and compelling terms what we will do to fix the country.

On embracing transformational change in South Africa – from the DA to Bishops:

The necessity to “transform” varies from organisation to organisation, but one thing is obvious: for 350 years, the allocation of resources (including educational resources) and power relations were skewed and we need to overcome this legacy. In part, this can be cured by re-allocating resources, but that alone is not enough.

It is not enough to assume automatically that the basic construct and systems of our society are sound and that all that is required is a tweak here and there. It may very well be that the systems are sound, and deliver satisfactory outcomes, but it may be that the construct and systems (or portions of them) are patronising and value-laden.
The solution lies not in expecting everyone else simply to assimilate ideas that we are comfortable with, but to confront those ideas and see whether they are still relevant and true. If after doing this rigorous examination, one may need to change some things, and then one needs to do so boldly and fundamentally. But there are certain core principles that one can never compromise on, however uncomfortable that may be. Defending those may require courage and resilience, but that that’s why one went to Bishops.

On working closely with three very different leaders of the DA:

I served as the Chairperson of the Federal Council under Tony [Leon], Helen [Zille] and Mmusi [Maimane]. Prior to that I was the Executive Director (CEO) of the Democratic Party, its Communications Director and before that, a Researcher for the PFP.
Each of the leaders under whom I served – and that also includes Colin Eglin, Van Zyl Slabbert and Zach de Beer – brought their own strengths, style and characteristics. Each brought their own unique foibles and caused me frustrations beyond the telling of it. But all have shared the same dogged determination: that South Africans deserve better, and that, together, South Africans can realise a better tomorrow. We did so in 1994 and we can do so again.

On the intractability of modern politics:

Politics tends to be characterised by phases. There was a period in the early 1980’s that saw politicians like Margaret Thatcher, Ronald Reagan, Erich Honecker and Yuri Andropov who were at each others’ throats. This was followed in the 1990’s by a more consensual style (Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Boris Yeltsin). The pendulum has now swung back, and will doubtless swing again. Intransigence and confrontation tends to occur when politicians adopt ideological rather than pragmatic positions.

On where the blame for state capture falls:

The Guptas and JGZ benefitted from a generally lax and unaccountable governance system in South Africa. They were not “to blame” necessarily. Who are to blame, in no particular order, are the media, Parliament, the NPA, civil society and voters for allowing it to happen. We all knew the Zuma regime was corrupt to the hilt in 2014, yet the voters of South Africa returned his party to power with a huge majority. The presiding officers of Parliament knew that Zuma lied to Parliament, yet they protected him. As a nation, we need to take collective responsibility and ensure it never happens again.

On the politician who has most impressed him in person:

The most impressive politician I have had the honour to meet is Angela Merkel. She is very principled yet pragmatic politician, and she deserves particular credit for standing up to the populist wave of xenophobia – at great cost to her and her party.

 James with, from left, Michal Leon, Helen Suzman, Tony Leon and Dene Smuts at the opening of the Suzman Exhibition at the Kaplan Centre in Cape Town, 2005. James’s father John (1938F), a South African ambassador, and uncle Herbie (1940F) were both prominent ODs with a long history at Bishops. Photograph by Shawn Benjamin of Ark Images:


On advice to anyone contemplating a career in politics:

First, this is a vocation and not a job: the hours are long, one takes a lot of abuse, and there are very few tangible rewards (unless, of course, one is corrupt!). Second, one needs to take the long view, and accept that there will be set-backs. Third, one must stick to one’s principles, while keeping an open but not an empty mind. Fourth, one must be constantly curious and innovative in the search for solutions to the real problems facing voters. And finally, if one disagrees with one’s opponents (as one inevitably will), at least disagree respectfully.

On our education system and how we can fix it:

Education in South Africa is in crisis: we spend vast amounts of money on it, but the outcomes are abysmal. As we confront the fourth industrial revolution, the current education system delivers thousands of matriculants who lack even the basic skills that would allow them to enter the economy. The education system is fixable, though, and in the Western Cape, it’s much better than elsewhere – there are more bachelor’s passes, more maths and science graduates, and more students stay in the education system from Gr R to Gr 12. This has happened because we demanded accountability from principals and teachers (and applied consequence management), because we up-skilled teachers, provided internet connectivity to schools, pioneered collaboration schools, provided after-school care, and encouraged partnerships between schools as well as with the private sector. It’s not perfect, and there’s still a long way to go, but if we want to tackle unemployment, we simply have to have a way better educational system.

On South Africa’s future:

Barring a few years in the mid-1980s, I have always been optimistic about South Africa’s future, and remain so. It is clear that we are in a lot of trouble on all fronts, but the democratic centre is still holding, despite the attractiveness of extremism.
It is clear that the majority party is fundamentally split between the “constitutionalists” and the “state capturers”; between those desperate to stay out of prison and those who want these people prosecuted. Both want to control the brand, and neither wants to blink first. But it’s frankly unsustainable, and sooner or later it will result in a split.
At that stage, people from all parties who believe in the Constitution, the Rule of Law, a market economy, a capable state, that South Africa belongs to all who live in it and a zero approach to corruption must come together to build that democratic centre and re-establish the consensus we achieved in 1994. I find that prospect very exciting, and will continue to work very hard to achieve it.

Tim Richman (1995B) is a publisher and author, and editor of The Old Diocesan.

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