Tony Leon: A tribute to an impressively ‘selfless’ James Selfe MP on the occasion of his retirement
Dec 10, 2021

Three times British Prime Minister in the inter war years, Stanley Baldwin, opined on his departure from Parliament in 1937, “Once I leave, I leave. I am not going to speak to the man on the bridge, and I am not going to spit on the deck.”

I have sometimes followed this advice, and indeed have very seldom ever returned to our own Parliament since I left its precincts in 2009.

This afternoon, however, I will make a return visit there to participate in the farewell ceremony for one of its longest serving members, James Selfe.

If not himself ‘the man on the bridge’ as per Baldwin’s depiction, James Selfe certainly was – for more than four decades – in the wheelhouse of opposition politics. His essential, though largely behind the scenes role, steered the fortunes and misfortunes, of South Africa’s principal opposition party, the Democratic Alliance (DA).

However outside of the narrow confines of party politics, of which more in a moment, Selfe’s decision to exit parliament and public life due to deteriorating health, means there are very few ‘originalists’ left in the House.

The ‘originalists’ are those who still serve in parliament today and who were around and helped shape the founding document, our constitution, and who participated in setting up our first democratic parliament.

There is certainly some wisdom in the warning which tycoon Elon Musk recently offered on the dangers of gerontocracy. The Tesla boss suggested that no one over 70 should serve in public office, and our country is beset by ageing leaders who often resemble and think like ‘exhausted volcanoes’ (to borrow from another British Prime Minister, Disraeli).

Yet, those who do not remember the past, or who never participated in shaping the current contours of our fragile democracy and who regard the constitution as just another instrument for control, are doomed to disregard our founding settlement. And they could imperil our future.

A snapshot of today’s parliament reveals few such founding fathers and mothers around. On the opposition side there are Inkatha’s founder  Mangosuthu Buthelezi, ACDP leader Kenneth Meshoe, and Freedom Front veteran Corne Mulder. Only ANC ministers Naledi Pandor and Lindiwe Sisulu were MP’s back in 1994 and continue to serve today in Parliament. President Cyril Ramaphosa and COGTA minister Nkosasana Dlamini-Zuma were indeed front and centre in the House in its founding days; but both interrupted their service there for detours to business and the African Union, respectively, before returning later on.

This simply means that most MP’s today have little acculturation, and perhaps scant regard, for the basic bargains struck when the constitution – whose 25th anniversary will be marked this Friday – was negotiated and affirmed in 1996. The crucial period when South Africa was riven by internecine violence, frantic compromises and on-off constitutional negotiations and a founding election between 1991 and 1994 are for most the stuff of history (and often distorted versions of it) not any form of lived reality.

It might also be said, that since the ANC leaders today who were founding parents of the constitution are happy to unstitch its essential compromises -such as language and property rights – or who passively stood by as Jacob Zuma gutted its essence ‘they destroy better than they know.’ Or perhaps they always were just instrumentalists: regarding the constitution as simply an instrument to amass power and to be disregarded after its attainment as an historic relic.

The handy rule book has gone along the following formula:  Deploy the cadres into the citadels of state and the judiciary, concentrate power in the party not in parliament, and preach the rhetoric of non-racialism while practising and legislating an exclusionary racial nationalism.

This has worked pretty well for the last two and a half decades, until something interrupted it on 1 November. A combination of 11 million out of work South Africans, the collapse of basic services, failed education and labour market systems and rampant corruption, the July looting and plunder – all combined to reveal at the polls that “South Africa is slowly edging towards  a post-ANC future.”

That, in any event, was the editorial headline on December 5 in the influential Financial Times – the international newspaper of record, and hitherto a cheerleader for the ‘new dawn’ promised but never delivered by Ramaphosa.

It noted that “South African politics has entered a new phase. For the first time since the end of apartheid, the ruling African National Congress vote in municipal elections last month dropped below 50 percent – a disastrous outcome for the party of Nelson Mandela and an indictment of its performance. Not before time the ANC’s political monopoly is faltering.”

As to the fact the elections were municipal rather than parliamentary, the FT waspishly offered some stinging qualifications: “True these were only local elections. For now, the ANC continues to govern the country, though the word ‘govern’ is perhaps too generous a word for a party that struggles to keep the lights on or curb rampant corruption.”

The Financial Times is equally sceptical on the claims of the opposition to power. It notes its divisions and its apparent lack of ideas. While acknowledging the DA’s recent electoral and mayoral successes it dismisses the party as ‘a shambles’.

Such dismissiveness would hardly be news to Selfe. From birth however he was gifted the wrong surname since his long and impressive career in public and political life was impressively ‘selfless’. He always saw himself as a public servant in a cause far more consequential than his own. I used to joke with him – when he served as Federal executive chairman under my leadership, that ‘You have always served power and never tried to change it.” But I was only half right: he operated under seven different leaders and adapted to the changing needs of the party and those who led it, from Van Zyl Slabbert to John Steenhuisen – and five leaders inbetween, and parked his ego in the parliamentary basement, but fortunately neither his backbone nor his brain.

On the alleged current ‘shambles’ in the official opposition, this premature death notice was visited on Selfe’s party before. After a shatteringly bad election result in 1994, the Democratic Party (DP) was labelled by one newspaper as ‘ a desolate shack’. Another opined that ‘the jury is still out on whether the party has any future at all’. In Selfe’s view – as he expressed it then – “If we close down the DP today, then in six months’ time we will have to gather in Colin Eglin’s (a veteran MP and former leader) flat and recreate it. South Africa needs a liberal party.”

And so Selfe helped to resurrect a party from just 7 MPs then to 85 today and mayoralties in most of our  important cities.

The interesting feature of his public life, and perhaps a portent to the future viability of a new government in the wake of our ‘post ANC future” is that he belonged to no fewer than five political parties, from the Progressive Party to the DA. Each was adapted, merged, changed and even discarded as new electoral possibilities loomed. Selfe, and his fellow pioneers, might have switched vehicles as the terrain changed. But the direction of travel was broadly in the same direction: the quest for a non-racial, moderate, social market society founded on the rule of law.

One of his leaders, the late Zach de Beer, called it ‘the long obedience’. James Selfe was one of its most faithful servants.

Tony Leon, chairman of Resolve Communications, delivered these comments in Parliament’s Old Assembly on 7 December 2021 at James Selfe MP’s retirement and farewell ceremony.

This article was originally published on 7 December 2021 on Times Live: https://www.timeslive.co.za/sunday-times-daily/opinion-and-analysis/2021-12-07-tony-leon–today-politics-says-goodbye-to-a-man-whose-name-belies-his-character/

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