VISION: Ryan Coetzee wondered what liberalism's role would be after the transition. Picture: TREVOR SAMSON

THE elections might be over but Ryan Coetzee is still a busy man. I meet the strategist for the Democratic Alliance (DA) and special adviser to the premier of the Western Cape at Doppio Zero, in Mandela Rhodes Place in Cape Town. The coffee shop, which is about 100m from the provincial government offices in Wale Street, is one of his regular haunts. And, although we arrive early, Coetzee is already there, bringing a breakfast meeting to a close .

"My work days involve sprinting from one meeting to another," he says . "I don't really have an office. When I need to write, I usually do it at home."

It is almost two months since the local elections, in which the DA increased its share of the overall vote from 16,3% in 2006 to 24,3%. While the electioneering is over, Coetzee's dual role as DA man and special adviser to Helen Zille (the latter is a political appointment, which is why he is able to hold both posts simultaneously) means his workload has not diminished since the votes were counted. "Quite the contrary. We've got to get it all together now and deliver on our election promises," he says.

Coetzee has been a politician for almost as long as he can remember. His interest in the subject was first piqued when, aged nine or 10, he watched in fascination as his father, a minister for the Assembly of God Church, exchanged finger- wagging gestures with PW Botha whenever the former prime minister appeared on TV.

Aside from a three-and-a- half-year sojourn in Polokwane (then Pietersburg), Coetzee, who is the oldest of four siblings, spent his youth in Cape Town. He was educated at Rondebosch Boys High School, where he "concentrated on cricket (in the first team) and rugby (as fullback)", and at the University of Cape Town, from which he graduated with a Bachelor of Arts (English and history). The degree was followed by a higher diploma in education, which Coetzee was committed to, having accepted a bursary from the Department of Education.

"I spent six months teaching at Boston College, which was all it took to confirm that teaching was not for me. I eventually paid the bursary back to the department in cash."

Coetzee committed himself to politics while at university. As an active member of the Democratic Party (DP) Youth and chairman thereof in 1992 and 1993, he was "in politics semi-full time as a student, which left no time for cricket".

"It was an interesting and difficult era for liberalism in this country. The historic mission had been accomplished and we needed to establish what our role would be in the transition period and thereafter."

It was a coming-of-age time for Coetzee as idealistic musings shifted to more practical deliberations about the "how, why and when" of the DP of the future. He learned a great deal, he says, not the least of which was that his niche was planning and managing strategy.

Coetzee was still a student when he met Tony Leon who, at the time, was chairman of the DP's Bill of Rights Commission and an adviser to Codesa (the Convention for a Democratic SA). He was, he says, impressed by Leon's "clarity of mind and leadership abilities". Thus began a close working relationship, which eventually led to Coetzee earning the media tag of "Leon's right-hand man".

When, at 24, he joined the DP full-time as a political assistant to the then-executive director of the party, James Selfe, the DP was considered a minority party for white liberal South Africans with 1,7% of the electorate supporting it.

"Business Day," he jokes, "referred to the party as a 'desolate shack' at the time!"

With the (self-confessed) arrogance of youth, the young politician hadn't been assisting Selfe for long before writing a memo to Leon proposing a number of changes he believed would improve the efficiency and effectiveness of the DP in Parliament. Leon responded by appointing Coetzee parliamentary manager. It was the beginning of his rapid rise up the party ladder. By 2005, he was CEO of the DA.

Unsurprisingly, his youth and self-confidence - "I guess I have been pushy at times but I don't think it's possible to be productive in politics otherwise" - have not always made Coetzee the most popular person in the party. Even so, few have disputed during the nearly two decades he's been involved in political affairs that he's among SA's smartest, most proficient and resilient politicians.

Not only has he been responsible for managing people many years his senior and withstood his fair share of criticism, but he was also in the engine room (some might argue, stoking the fire) of the DP when it became the DA, and went through its difficult and short- lived merger with the New National Party (NNP). He was there at the time of Leon's retirement in 2007 and devised the strategy that was picked up by Zille when she took over leadership of the party. Coetzee was part of the rebranding of the party in 2008 and also integral to the negotiations that resulted in the DA-Independent Democrats merger last year.

He was also a tireless campaigner during the recent local elections, leading a posse of enthusiastic DA crusaders on Twitter and other platforms.

"It's taken a long time to get here and it's been quite a journey but everything that's gone on in the past decade has been leading to this. We've defined the DA as a party that is diverse and inclusive, with a focus on delivery, and that's what we're committed to."

Recent months, however, have taken their toll.

"I'm an intense person and find it difficult to find a healthy balance in life," says Coetzee, the father of "four-and-a-half- ish" Daniel. "I don't exercise when I'm stressed and make poor choices in food. I'm addicted to chocolate and I unwind over drinks with friends. It was a toss-up during the elections whether I would gain more weight than the DA would votes. Fortunately, the party's growth was more substantial than mine. I like to run to get fit but I don't make time to do it when the pressure is on."

And the pressure is not off yet: "I'm a strategist but strategy is only part of what I do and not even the most important part. Strategy is like a steering wheel, where the engine is the vision grounded in a philosophy, the cause and the authentic core of the organisation and its objectives. Strategy can steer the way and get you there but only if the engine operates properly. You can't manipulate strategy and you can only build the brand if it's authentic on the inside, which is why I'm busier now than ever.

"We have to ensure that we have everything in place to deliver on our promises."

The time allocated for our meeting is up and Coetzee has to head back across the road to the provincial offices for his next appointment. We need a photograph first. He's co- operative and adopts a couple of bashful poses as directed before we bid our farewells.

As I watch him trot up the stairway into the building, I wonder how it is the busy politician doesn't clock up enough fitness miles running between meetings.