DA's kingmaker riles party members

James Selfe (right) is believed to back Mmusi Maimane (left) as the next national leader of the DA. (David Harrison, M&G)

James Selfe (right) is believed to back Mmusi Maimane (left) as the next national leader of the DA. (David Harrison, M&G)


Helen Zille, the Democratic Alliance leader, might have been nudged to announce her early exit but, by default, the move has undermined her opponents’ plot to fill the vacuum she leaves. Almost a week after her announcement, Gauteng, which opposes a prearranged succession, has yet to decide whether to accept its prodigal son and heir apparent Mmusi Maimane as its preferred candidate or to field another. The province was taken by surprise and is confused.

As the party tries to avoid a divisive contest, the province is peeved by the fact that the process seems to be in the hands of the federal council chairperson, James Selfe, the power behind the party leadership.

Already, he has put off some party members by trying to write new rules for the succession race. He raised the bar and narrowed the race to “serious” candidates only who are endorsed by a provincial leader.

He is said to support Maimane’s candidature and, by including an endorsement rule, may block other candidates. Other possible contenders for the position include the DA’s federal chairperson, Wilmot James, the Gauteng provincial leader, John Moodey, and two relative unknowns, Neil Els and Jack Swart.

Selfe said that by serious candidates, the party meant that “only if you are endorsed by at least one provincial leader will you be considered”.

This could be interpreted by others, such as those in Gauteng, as an attempt by Selfe, who wields considerable influence, to control the election outcome.

This condition contradicts the DA constitution, which says “any member of the party wishing to make themselves available for election as any office bearer in the party in a regional council or higher structure, or as a public representative, must be a member in good financial standing with the party”.

Selfe defended the position and said it was part of the party’s internal rule memo. “That is how things have been working for the past seven years.”

He refused to share the memo.

Selfe’s position is supported by the Eastern Cape provincial leader, Athol Trollip, who is contesting the federal chairperson position. “The party can’t afford to send a number of people flying all over the country who are unknown or don’t have reasonable support in the party. So I support that decision and condition a hundred percent. We, as a party, are entitled to make conditions about people who contest for positions,” he said.

But several DA leaders are irked by Selfe’s decision, which they say has no place in the party.

Moodey said the rule was nonexistent. “It is a load of twak [nonsense].”

‘No such rule’
The deputy federal chairperson, Makashule Gana, who is contesting the federal chairperson position, said there was “no such rule and I will never support such a rule as it is designed to close out people who might not have the support of provincial leaders. Our members and activists should never be closed out from contesting a leadership position.”

A Mpumalanga provincial leader, James Masango, said he had never heard of it. “When you talk about an endorsement, I don’t know what that means. No one has asked me for support. We don’t know who is standing yet so I can’t even say who has my support.”

The DA Youth acting leader, Yusuf Cassim, also said it was the first time he had heard about it. “According to our constitution, any member can contest,” he said.

A member of the DA’s Western Cape provincial legislature and another candidate for the federal chairperson position, Masizole Mnqasela, said it was “nonsense” that one had to be endorsed by a provincial leader.

In response, Selfe said leaders opposing his decision must “get with the times”.

But will those opposing his measure win this one? Not so, say those in the DA who know the man who has held the position of federal executive chairperson for the past 14 years, starting with the former Democratic Party and then retaining the position when the DA was formed.

Zille was a young reporter in her mid-20s working for the Rand Daily Mail and Maimane had not yet been born when Selfe entered politics in 1978. He started working in the Progressive Federal Party’s research department.  Selfe is seen as the custodian of the party’s culture and ideology.

It is likely Selfe will be behind the success of Maimane and will ensure his leadership is respected, in the same way he did with other DA leaders. Selfe is a smooth, behind-the-scenes operator in charge of the party’s day-to-day operations, and the bulk of the decision-making powers lie with him.

Moodey said Selfe was powerful because of his institutional experience. He understood the origins of the DA better than most.

“It is not that there is no one to fill that position but it is a lot of hard work and takes a lot of time. So I don’t think anyone is up for that challenge yet,” he said.

Selfe’s position is being likened to that of an ANC secretary general, as “it links politicians and staff operations”. His position is unlikely to be contested. 

Existing profile
The majority of DA leaders and its members are almost resigned to the possibility of Maimane taking over the reins from next month, because Zille’s departure was unexpected and other leaders have little time to campaign and raise money for electioneering. Maimane has already benefited from the political profile that Zille and other party veterans have helped him build since 2011.

In the past four years, he began as an unknown DA mayoral candidate for Johannesburg, became the party’s caucus leader in the city, then was elected deputy federal chairperson and later became the DA’s premier candidate for Gauteng, before being elected as the party’s leader in Parliament last year.

Prospective candidates for positions are trying to establish how popular they are among the 1 400 delegates who will be voting at the May 9 federal congress.

Maimane and James are likely to announce their candidature in the next few days and Moodey is still considering whether to avail himself.

Although the province had planned to field a candidate for national leader in only 2018, there are talks of putting one forward before next Friday’s deadline. Moodey’s name tops the list.

But Gauteng could be forced to accept Maimane, although he’s not the province’s choice.

“He doesn’t understand the organisation. He can’t even tell you what his constituency is. He has never led a structure of the DA,” said a Gauteng leader, who preferred to remain anonymous.

‘Caught off guard’
But the leader admitted “now we have a dilemma in a way. We were caught off guard. We need to start raising money from scratch. The other team [Maimane’s] has been raising money already. On the basis of resources, Mmusi stands a better chance of winning.

“Our elections are damn expensive. You have to print T-shirts, stickers, send text messages and make calls to delegates. If you want to win, you go big for everyone. At least Mmusi has got an advantage of having been punted all along.

“We will support him if he wins. This is not a permanent disapproval. It might happen that, by the time we get to 2018, he has grown into a better leader and we would stick with him instead of fielding our own candidate.”

Trollip, a former parliamentary leader who unsuccessfully ran for party leader in 2007, said his decision to stand for federal chairperson was more important now that the party would have a new leader.

“I believe I have the experience that I thought then would have been important in the transition period of Helen Zille to the next person. But that has now been brought forward and it is even more important to have an experienced person with leadership expertise and various other qualities, which I think I have, to be there in support of the new leader.”

The DA Western Cape candidate for provincial leader, Lennit Max, said Maimane was still “too young” for the responsibility of a national party leader and needed time to learn.


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