Outgoing DA federal executive chair James Selfe. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON
Outgoing DA federal executive chair James Selfe. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

In a surprising turn of events the DA over the weekend said the long-serving chairman of its federal executive, James Selfe, will step down from the post in October.

Having served effectively as the party’s political CEO for almost two decades, Selfe can be seen as part of the DA’s furniture. The fact that he was elected unopposed just more than a year ago makes his resignation two years before the DA is set to go to its next federal congress, where it will elect its next leadership, quite extraordinary.

He started his career in politics as a researcher in Helen Suzman’s Progressive Federal Party, which became the Democratic Party and later morphed into the DA.

It is clear that his resignation signifies the end of an era for the DA.

Selfe has rightly been praised by the DA for the contribution he has made to the party and the country, which is indebted to the driving force behind the DA’s strategy for years. This included the battle to get access to the “spy tapes” used to justify dropping criminal charges against former president Jacob Zuma.

With Selfe driving it behind the scenes, the DA persevered for almost a decade and finally succeeded in pushing Zuma into a corner in the Supreme Court of Appeal in which he conceded that it was indeed irrational and unlawful to drop the charges against him.

Selfe saw the DA grow into SA’s official opposition party and in May also saw its support decline for the first time.

His resignation from arguably the most powerful position in the party is therefore the biggest change after the bruising May 8 polls. DA leader Mmusi Maimane announced that Selfe will be heading the party’s governance unit, which is tasked with supporting DA governments to ensure better service delivery in areas where the party has formed administrations.

Given the lashing the DA received at the polls, especially in  Gauteng where it governs two metros via a coalition and with the voting support of the EFF, and the Midvaal municipality with an outright majority, it does make sense to redeploy him there.

The state of governance clearly has an impact on the choices voters make and the DA wants to win these metros with an outright majority come the 2021 local government elections, which will likely be no easy task. 

Selfe clearly has the clout to rein in errant public servants and to keep the metros in check to deliver on the DA’s own manifesto promises. Politically, however, it opens up a coveted position in the party for which one can expect heavy competition, given the power the chairman of the federal executive and the federal council holds.

In his opening remarks at the past federal council, Maimane said “the adage ‘adapt or die’ is entirely apposite now”. The party is undertaking its first review of its structures and processes since 2004, which is aimed to be completed by the federal council meeting in October when Selfe is due to step down.

Change is therefore a given in the DA over the coming months and years, as Maimane said in his opening remarks, “we cannot let this crisis go to waste”.

Whether Selfe’s resignation will be the silver bullet to put the DA on a different trajectory remains to be seen. It is clear that his resignation signifies the end of an era for the DA. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but opening up the position places the DA in uncharted waters.

Who becomes Selfe’s successor could give an indication as to the direction the party will take next, or whether the status quo will remain.