Analysis: Is the DA planning to replace James Selfe?

2016-07-04 09:23

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Carien du Plessis

Elections don’t only signal power changing political hands within government, they can also lead to shake-ups in parties as leaders get redeployed, promoted or embarrassed.

The Democratic Alliance, for one, is watching next month’s local government elections with some anticipation, and their bets are hedged on at least two metros - Nelson Mandela Bay and Tshwane.

Within the party itself, backroom lobbying has already started in anticipation of changes – and also ahead of the party’s mid-term caucus elections in October, held in the middle of the national and provincial legislature term and aimed at keeping leaders on their toes.

It is this election that saw Lindiwe Mazibuko replace Athol Trollip as parliamentary leader in 2011.

Even though the DA’s next leadership election is only in the first half of 2018, those who want to rise in the party had better start put their pieces in place now in order to capture the king, or there will be a checkmate.

Plan to replace Selfe?

They would obviously not want to show their hand too early, so those involved are hardly likely to confirm what are currently doing the rounds as rumours.

Right now, much talk in the party is centring around the future position of James Selfe, chairperson of the party’s federal council for the past 16 years, as well as parliamentary chief whip John Steenhuisen, a fairly young and rising DA leader who started in his current position two years ago.

At least three sources within the DA said there’s a plan to replace James Selfe as chair of the federal council – although speculation differs as to where he will go.

Selfe is an encyclopaedia of institutional knowledge, and it would make sense for him to mentor and advise a successor.

His deputy, Thomas Walters, is a possible candidate for the job but he lacks the national profile someone like, say Steenhuisen has.

Some in the DA say the plan is to get Steenhuisen into Selfe’s position. This could even happen later this year after the elections, as this position is elected by federal council only, and does not require a federal congress to fill, or it could wait for 2018.

Selfe, in turn, could be appointed party chief executive officer, a position currently occupied by Paul Boughey, who in turn could see himself deployed to the Nelson Mandela Bay metro as, say, city manager, should the DA have a strong showing in the local government elections there.

'Complete nonsense'

One source said the full-time CEO position would give Selfe more time to concentrate on pushing the party’s court cases, which he is currently handling, without being burdened with parliamentary work or with putting out political fires in the party, a duty which is part of his current position.

Boughey, however, said there were no plans to move him. "Whatever you have heard is complete nonsense, fanciful and just plain wrong. James Selfe will stay the chair of the federal council until the next congress and maybe beyond, and I am the CEO. There really is no news or story here."

Selfe said: “I have no desire to become the CEO of the party.”

Asked whether it would be a demotion for him, he said, “I would regard it as such.”

Asked whether he was concerned about the fact that after 15 years in Parliament an MP’s pension doesn’t increase further, Selfe confirmed, “You go backwards after a while, but I’m not in it for the money. I’m not concerned remotely.”

He said as things stood he was planning to run for his position again after the party’s 2018 federal congress. Whereas positions like party leader is elected by the entire congress, chair of the federal council is elected by the federal council alone.

Selfe has been working in politics since 1978, when he joined the Progressive Federal Party’s research department, and in 1992 he became the executive director of the Democratic Party. He has been in Parliament since 1994, first in the National Council of Provinces, moving five years later to the National Assembly, where he still is.

Steenhuisen's popularity

Selfe has been chair of the party's federal council since 2000 and has held the position uncontested. There is, however, talk within the party that Selfe has given his blessing to Steenhuisen to campaign to move into his position because of fears that he himself would not be re-elected chair of the federal council.

"Selfe and other party leaders (are) supporting his ascension by giving him his own speaking tour around the country in the guise of campaigning," a party source said.

During a recent campaign visit to Mpumalanga, the province rolled out a big banner welcoming Steenhuisen personally to the province – a move which raised a few eyebrows in the party.

"(Steenhuisen) is seen as being very popular with white voters and his angry performances in parliament resonate with our conservative votes."

There are, however, questions over whether Steenhuisen would be able to continue as chief whip and chair of the federal council, as both positions come with a heavy work load.

The source said there was also talk that DA federal chairperson Athol Trollip would go for that position should his bid to become Nelson Mandela Bay mayor not succeed, “but I can’t imagine them splitting votes like that”.

Trollip and Steenhuisen are aligned to the same "camp" within the DA.

'Bizarre scenario'

Party leader Mmusi Maimane, who was elected last year, is set to remain in his position, with Gauteng MPL Mike Moriarty and Gauteng leader John Moodey being mooted for Trollip’s current position.

Steenhuisen, however, said he enjoyed his job as chief whip, to which he was elected in 2014. “It's great fun on the campaign trail but I also miss Parliament enormously,” he said. “To be honest I haven't even thought about (running for Selfe’s position), I really do enjoy being chief whip and believe that I add the most value to the party in that position.”

Steenhuisen added, “I also support James Selfe wholeheartedly and believe he adds the most value in this position”.

Steenhuisen is generally well-regarded by his colleagues for the work he has done as party chief whip. 

Maimane rubbished the talk as a "bizarre scenario" and untrue. "Our congress is so far ahead it is quite bizarre." He also said mid-term caucus elections would not affect his position. "It is inaccurate, there is no basis in fact, and that's all I'll say about that."

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

Read more on:    da  |  mmusi maimane  |  lindiwe mazibuko  |  john steenhuisen  |  athol trollip  |  james selfe  |  local elections 2016
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