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News > Passing of friends > The sad passing of James Selfe.

The sad passing of James Selfe.

He had a stellar parliamentary career, which some of his school friends write about.
James in the House of Assembly, (photo courtesy of Nick Moldan - 1972F).
James in the House of Assembly, (photo courtesy of Nick Moldan - 1972F).

Rob Adam (1972F)Jeremy Friedlander (1972F) and Guy Lloyd-Roberts (1972S), close school friends of James Selfe (1972F:PM, 1973), have sent the following obituary which they compiled.      

James Selfe was born on 23 August 1955 in Pretoria.  After attending Waterkloof House Preparatory School in that city and thereafter Bishops Prep, James arrived at Founders House, matriculating in 1972 with a First Class pass with a distinction in mathematics. In his matric year he was a member of the Ten Club. In 1973 he completed a post matric year and served as a school prefect.

James came to Bishops Prep in 1964 in Standard 1 in Sheila Wolfe’s class as a boarder in Birt House at the age of 9; and stayed a boarder to his post matric year in 1973.  This was largely due to his father John Selfe (1939F), a career diplomatic, who was posted abroad. Two notable postings were Geneva and Taipei. Because of the distance and costs involved, James from a very young age only saw his parents twice a year, during the two long vacations. During the short vacations in April and September, James would either stay with his uncle and aunt Herbie and Joan and cousins Peter, Pamela and Lynette in Rondebosch or with the family of one of his classmates. For example, James regularly spent his holidays with the family of Rob Adam in Namibia. These long periods away from close family meant James had to develop self-reliance (no pun intended) and mental toughness beyond his years, qualities which he would come to depend upon during his stellar career in politics.

Like most of his peers, James was called up for compulsory military training in the then South African Defence Force serving in an anti-aircraft unit. Unlike most of his peers James remained active thereafter in what was then known as the Citizen Force, rising to the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. Initially considering a law degree at the University of Cape Town, the lure of political studies proved too strong.   The degrees of B.A. (Hons) and M.A. were conferred upon him.  Political studies, in turn, led directly to a lifelong career in politics.  James’ political career spanned the final decade of the despised apartheid regime where he served on the Presidents Council, the unbanning of formerly repressed political parties and movements, and culminated after a further 27 years spent serving South Africa’s new democracy.

James’ lengthy service was marked at its very beginnings in the Constitutional Assembly where he served in the shaping of South Africa’s democratic Constitution.  This marks him today as an exceptional “Originalist” - a title reserved for the very select few who played a formative role in shaping South Africa’s foundational democratic Constitution; who also participated in the first democratic Parliament; and who, in James’ case, continued so to serve until poor health forced his retirement at the end of 2021.

James’ Parliamentary career was no less important than his career within South African opposition politics.  From 1988 he served as Communications Director of the then Progressive Federal Party. He continued in that role when the PFP merged to form the Democratic Party.  In 1992 he became the Executive Director of the DP.  Elected to the Senate (later the National Council of Provinces) in 1994, he moved in 1999 to the National Assembly.  Following its inception in 2000, James served as Chair of the DA’s Federal Executive right through to 2019. Re-elected to the National Assembly in 2004 James became the Opposition Spokesman on Correctional Services. 

James’ assured influence at the top rungs of opposition politics may be measured, superficially by the numbers.  From just 7 MP’s in 1994, the DA has grown to be represented by 85 today.  At other levels of government, at Municipal and Provincial level, James’ influence nationwide was no less successful. His forthright yet calm approach was similarly seen across a diverse and impressive range of Parliamentary and related Committees.  These encompassed Correctional Services, Constitutional Review, Justice and Constitutional Development, Communications, and Funding of Political Parties.  Significantly James was at the forefront of the DA’s legal contestation of the conduct by the NPA in 2009 that led to the dropping of all corruption charges against Jacob Zuma.  Fittingly, James also served on the ad hoc committee on the disgrace that was Nkandla.

What is more striking however is the undisguised admiration, esteem and affection in which James was held by his Parliamentary colleagues.  From within his own party, James has been lauded as “one of a tiny handful of truly indispensable people in leadership roles who led the DA’s growth from a tiny Parliamentary splinter in 1994, to its unchallenged role as Official Opposition in the National Assembly and governing party in Cape Town and the Western Cape.  In his many jousts rolling back State Capture in the Courts, he proved that the finest legal minds occasionally have no legal training.  James’ accomplishments – largely unsung and often unnoticed – both paved the road for the DA’s successes and cushioned the falls from its defeats”.  Those are the words of inveterate politician Tony Leon.

But it is from across the political divide that one appreciates how James’ political opponents measured him: “You bow out in a very decent manner. . .  We thank you for your service to the nation for more than four decades.  Your diligence will be missed and you may take pride knowing you contributed to the drafting of our Constitution … ” (ANC Chief Whip Pemmy Majodina). 

Wouter Wessels of the Freedom Front Plus noted: “Mr Selfe was an example of a responsible politician.  Always being calm and rational. When he differed, he differed with dignity.  He showed tolerance and mutual respect.” Others working in politics at the same time, knew James as always being “a very calm, humble person. Even when you differed with him, he would do so in a very respectful manner.”  What are the origins of James’s remarkable composure? His father John Selfe, as mentioned, was a career diplomat whose training and lived experience would not allow him to lose his cool, ever. James in this respect was able to learn from a master.

In an arena forged in the crucible of adversarial, combative and very public confrontation, these tributes complement James’ legislative achievements.  They also speak to his character.  To borrow the words of Alan Paton, James has shown all South Africans how to embody generosity of spirit, a tolerance of others, an attempt to comprehend otherness, a commitment to the rule of law, a high ideal of the worth and dignity of man, a repugnance of authoritarianism and a love of freedom. 

James Selfe passed away in Cape Town on 21 May 2024.

He will be remembered as a loving family man, supporter of the staff where he worked, and was generous with his time and showed the wisdom his party needed.   

James is survived by his wife Sheila and three girls Stephanie, Chloe and Emma and their children, also his sister Helen in England and brother Andy (1968F).  They lost their elder brother Philip (1965F) who died at age 42. 

The ODU and its members send their deepfelt condolences to Sheila, his daughters, and grandchildren.

MHDSRIP.  

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