Road to the da federal congress james selfe, party’s enforcer-in-chief daily maverick

While most staff members on Wednesday were still trying to find their way in the party’s new campaign headquarters in Bruma, Johannesburg – a three-storey building named Nkululeko House and smelling of blue paint and carpet glue – Selfe was already holed up behind a new office desk with his laptop in his otherwise empty realm.

“I got the office… with the birdshit on the windows,” he joked wryly, looking out of the blindless windows of his second-floor office with a view onto a clump of nearby treetops. Most of the other offices are in open-plan spaces, but he has a private one.

Selfe is to the Democratic Alliance what Gwede Mantashe was to the ANC during his decade as secretary-general (Ace Magashule is still too new to say) – an administrator, an implementer, an enforcer, and a bearer of vast institutional knowledge.

“I am the chairperson of a body and a body makes decisions, I implement those decisions. Sometimes I have to take decisions on behalf of that body, delegated decisions, but compared to the federal leader or even a provincial leader, I don’t think I carry that sort of power.”

He is also the one person who knows just about everything that happens in the party, as he also sits on the tightly knit national management committee responsible for the day-to-day and snap decisions in the party. (This committee could, incidentally, become even smaller if a constitutional amendment to this effect is adopted at the party’s weekend federal congress.)

“When I tried to work it out five years ago, I think there were 17 different components of the job, ranging from the administration of the federal legal commission, the law cases, the operation of our candidate selection and nomination processes, our ready-to-govern programmes; I mean it’s an extensive amount of work,” he said.

The party’s strategy of lawfare – fighting governance cases on everything from bad appointments to presidential legal fees in court to establish legal precedents and to show that not even presidents are above the law – has increased his work load considerably, and thrust him into the media spotlight.

There is also unhappiness among some about “a lack of strategic direction in the party, and almost a kind of amateurism”. The DA, they say, should have been aiming by now to bring the ANC to below 50% nationally in next year’s general elections (this is currently the aim in Gauteng and perhaps the Northern Cape only).

Steenhuisen should then have stepped into Selfe’s place – or rather, the 150 or so members of federal council would have convened to elect him chairperson (the chair of the federal council is not elected by congress like, for instance, the leader, but by the party’s federal council). This didn’t happen.

Others in the know in the parliamentary caucus said DA leader Mmusi Maimane convinced Steenhuisen to step aside to avoid conflict. Still others – detractors based outside the caucus but with a good knowledge of what’s happening within – said Steenhuisen could not contest for any party position because his tithes were not paid on time, and Selfe knows this too.

“I enjoy [the job] and when I put in long hours, including over weekends, it’s because I like doing it, so it’s not a particular strain or any of that nature, and thank goodness I have a very long-suffering family,” he said. Selfe’s semi-retired psychiatrist wife is in Cape Town, while his three daughters – and a grandchild – live in Gauteng.

Member of Parliament Thomas Walters has been Selfe’s deputy since 2015, and he will be running again, alongside three other candidates: Haniff Hoosen (MP), Natasha Mazzone (MP), and Khume Ramulifho (Gauteng MPL). It’s expected that two would be chosen out of these to assist Selfe.