James Selfe retires after dedicating 43 years to building a better South Africa

James Selfe retired this past week after 43 years of service in public life. His commitment to liberal values and building a non-racial and equal South Africa can never be questioned. He dedicated his life to this mission until his very last day at the office. 

But Selfe’s service has not been limited to his political homes from the Progressive Federal Party, the Democratic Party and ultimately the Democratic Alliance. During his time in politics, Selfe served the country well. He was one of the few remaining MPs who formed part of the Constitutional Assembly, the body that drew up the Constitution — a living document that has been globally lauded and has stood the test of time. 

As a man with a great sense of occasion, it is an apt coincidence that Selfe retires during the week that we celebrate the 25th anniversary of our democracy’s founding document.  

His various accolades, many of them understated, range from his participation in parliament to serving in the correctional services portfolio. Many may not be aware that it was Selfe, as the DA’s federal chairperson at the time, that led the party through many landmark legal challenges including the “Spy Tapes” case, which saw the reinstatement of former president Jacob Zuma’s corruption charges. 

Listening to the farewell tributes from colleagues during the last sitting of the national assembly this week, it was incredible to witness the reverence for his work across all political parties. For a parliament that is tumultuous at best, this is rare and testament to his commitment to South Africa over the past four decades.

These tributes also reminded me that as younger MPs we are poorer for not serving with many distinguished members who garnered the respect of colleagues across the aisle. The gravitas and the decorum that underscored the tenure of the late Dean Smuts and most recently the late Jackson Mthembu is something the sixth parliament sorely lacks. Witnessing the retirement of people like Selfe almost signals the end of institutional knowledge and a culture of comradery and fundamental decency in our politics. 

Although each generation of leaders must set their own course, there is much to be learnt from those like Selfe who have come before. 

I have known James for some time during my career in politics. A couple of years ago I cracked my very first invite to the famous annual Selfe Christmas party, which was a highly sought out item on the DA political calendar. It was then that I realised, despite his best efforts, I had become his friend. It is no surprise as we had survived a tough 2019 election campaign and spent many hours on the road to various far-flung parts of the country. He would narrate many undocumented stories dating back to the first parliament, often intercepted by some educational material of classical music. 

It was the best of times. It was also the only time I had ever witnessed anyone order a Greek salad from McDonalds in the middle of Tlokwe in the North West. 

James leaves behind a legacy that he can certainly be proud of. We also owe his family a great debt of gratitude for lending us him at a huge personal cost. I have no doubt he will enjoy the next chapter of his life spending time with his wife, Shiela, their children, grandchildren and Lottie and Leo, the Schnauzers. 

It is time to rest now, Old Sport. You have earned it and remember don’t f#% it up! 

Siviwe Gwarube is the national spokesperson and deputy chief whip of the Democratic Alliance.

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Siviwe Gwarube
Siviwe Gwarube is the national spokesperson and deputy chief whip of the Democratic Alliance

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