Charlene Smith
Charlene Smith

Rights, but no freedom — except for Tony Leon who is free at last, and great at it

Tony Leon is different now and yet maybe this is who he always was buried below the stress.

Tony Leon on a public platform today is engaging, charming, witty, erudite and dare I say it – cute. This is a far cry from the leader of the opposition who often came across as belligerent and even self righteous.

He comes across as a person of passion, humour, great energy, wonderful anecdotes, comfortable, self-deprecatingly funny lines and as someone you really want to sit with until late at night, sharing a bottle of wine and a multitude of thoughts.

I haven’t yet read his door-stoppingly big On the Contrary: Leading the Opposition in a Democratic South Africa, but after listening to him speak I paid R125 more to get the hard back copy because I know it’s going to be one of those books I read, underline sections and return to again and again.

Tony Leon’s time has finally come. You feel in audiences that listen to him and in media reviews a softening, a sense of fondness, we finally get it. All those years when we turned our heads away, sighed or ignored, now we finally get it. He will become a beloved elder statesman, the sort journalist’s phone for a pithy quote, the analysis that best sums up a situation.

He is relishing his new life. He doesn’t look like the pressured guy on the book cover; he positively bounces into a room, exuding goodwill and energy. He has recall probably second only to Nelson Mandela. Speaking of whom, he recalls how Mandela once invited him to breakfast at 6am in 1997 and offered him a cabinet position. Leon mulled over it for days. Mandela called him back and pointed out that they would be like Robert Mugabe and Joshua Nkomo and suddenly the flickering globe of decision became a spotlight in Leon’s brain – “we’d have no opposition”, he realised, and he turned down the offer.

It is a measure of his principles. He could have had the car, the house, the status, the pension and the langbroek Marthinus van Schalkwyk opted for. Leon chose an honourable mention in history.

“The essence of being a policy maker,” he says quoting US President George Bush’s 37-year-old policy maker on Afghanistan and Iraq — a woman he attended Harvard with — “is making decisions with huge consequences with too little information and too little time.”

South Africa’s much vaunted constitution, Leon says, grew into a bonsai when we thought we had planted an oak. “Some of the critical supporting elements were absent or not present.” We know it now as the Constitutional Court, proud in name but weak in many of its judgments, wavers and as we lose five of our best judges to the end of their contracts in September, impeccably honest judges like Kate O Reagan, heaven knows who the less than impeccable Judicial Services Commission and President Thabo Mbeki will foist on us before he ends his term and they begin theirs.

Leon mentions few names in his book or in his delicious sharing of titbits, “South African business,” he tells us, “never met a government it didn’t like, white or black.” In the book, he promises a list of those business people who in 1983 took out full page ads to endorse PW Botha and his strategies. I confess, that even though I was going to buy the book, knowing I would secure that list of shame made it a double delight. No doubt, among them are those today who are at the front of the queue to buy seats at dinners to sing praise to the African National Congress. Money breeds hypocrisy in the morally flabby.

The strongest sense one leaves with after listening to the new Tony Leon speak, is that after our much-vaunted first democratic election we gained rights at the expense of freedom. He paraphrases Vaclav Havel who spoke of the “outpost of the State in the mind of every citizen.”

Centralisation has corralled us so badly that in the Western Cape a recent decree says the police may not speak Afrikaans – in a province where 65% of the police are Afrikaans speaking and probably 90% of the criminals. Maar nee wat, dit is die nuwe Suid-Afrika, so ons sal maar die Engels praat, and we know what a donnerse mors crime detection is anyhow without politics and language entering the fray.

He noted how South Africa’s Minerals and Energy legislation has been inordinately successful; it has seen South Africa’s ranking as a desirable mining destination move from 25th to 53rd place and the loss of some 20 000 mineworkers’ jobs in two years. Leon quotes Henry Kissinger who once said, “Sometimes there is so much prestige riding on a policy that it becomes difficult to move away from it.”

But that may just be because they’ve never read US historian Barbara Tuchman who wrote in, The March of Folly: “The power to command frequently causes failure to think … If the mind is open enough to perceive that a given policy is harming rather than serving self-interest, if we are self-confident enough to acknowledge it and wise enough to reverse it, we will have reached the summit in the art of government.” We’re a way from that yet.

Leon says: “If you make bad decisions you need to correct them, but Thabo Mbeki’s political style was autistic – you don’t hear voices outside your own head.”

With regard to Zimbabwe he says: “South Africa was actively complicit in a tyranny for eight years and when policy didn’t change; we didn’t change tack. We weren’t on the right side of human rights as Mandela promised in a Foreign Affairs article in 1993. Thomas Friedman wrote in the New York Times recently, that when whites tyrannise blacks no amount of sanctions is enough; when blacks tyrannise blacks any amount of sanctions is too much. For eight years we watched someone wreck a country and we were complicit.”

He says too that “you can’t substitute or compromise economic growth. Black Economic Empowerment and racial ordering became a priority here. In Cape Town in 2006 the Democratic Alliance took over and we discovered we couldn’t even fill the powder in fire extinguishers because BEE was so extreme in tenders. We took away racial requirements for tenders, we removed quotas, we eliminated corruption and all of a sudden we found that BEE companies were getting 10% more tenders than under racial quotas. If you become obsessed by racial quotes and racial bean counting it costs more jobs than it creates.”

As for Leon today? Heck, he’s having the time of his life. He began writing his biography three years ago in spurts then gave it his full attention when he retired as DA leader. Now that it is a 766-page doorstop (index included) he’s doing a crazy round of speaking engagements and in October is off to a Washington think tank for three months to write some papers. He is 52 and life has just begun.

As Nelson Mandela wrote in a tribute carried on the back of his book: “Your contribution to democracy is enormous. You have far more support for all you have done than you might ever read about …”

Thank you, is in order.

  • gavin rome

    Have not read the book only the excerpts from it in the Sunday Times, which I found extremely troubling. Leon has not even a hint of embarrassment in describing the DA’s working relationship with Russell Crystal (who is depicted as some sort of overmaster campaign strategist, in the James Carville mode).

    Anyone who attended WITS in the 80’s and recalls the odious conduct and ideas of Crystal and his gov’t funded (and doublespeak named) Student Moderates [sic] Alliance, would have hoped that a leader of a liberal opposition would at least have held his nose before embracing Crystal for electoral assistance.

    Having read the extracts I am now reluctant to buy the book

  • Bonginkosi


    Wow. You sound like a groupie. SERIOUSLY. I can’t even figure out how this ‘review’ landed up on TL. Why don’t you write Tony a love letter? That will go down very well and it will be less embarassing for the rest of us!! (He IS a married man. Be careful!!)

  • Madoda

    Tony is the main reason that there is no dominant and relevant alternative party to the ANC in South Africa. In politics the parties are similar to suppliers competing for customer (voters) within an industry. To gain market share the party has to appeal to the majority of voters. Tony never focused on building the DA to grow membership and support of the black majority of voters. In his campaigns and strategies, he never addressed the conditions and interest of the black majority. At times he came across as the defender of the status quo.

    His sole political ambition was to oppose whatever policies and solutions advanced by other parties. Because of this the DA would battle to remove the perception that it can never be ready to govern because governing is about being original and solutions driven. There is a limit to what opposition can achieve in a country with so many challenges and needs for service delivery.

    I am also not convinced to buy his book if all it contains is a catalogue of what he opposed and not what solutions he implemented.

  • lindiwe

    come on Charlene! The man did more to damage opposition politics in this country than the ANC did. He was rude, obnoxious and self-centred. And approved an election campaign that might as well have been titled “fight black” instead of “fight back”.

  • Lyndall Beddy


    You really can’t judge a book from a newspaper article. Take it out from the library, and only buy it if it is good.

    As for the advice Leon took – some of it it seems to have been very bad, and very expensive, advice because they recommended the “Fight Back” campaign, which was so misinterpreted. Not Leon’s best decision!

  • Trevor Laing

    I was at UCT, not Wits, and don’t know much about Russell Crystal, so I can’t comment on him. But, unlike Gavin Rome, this column has made me want to buy Leon’s book – it seems strange to make a decision on buying a book on the basis of the author’s colleagues. And the column is excellent.

    I often don’t agree with Leon – I’ve long considered myself a little to his left, although I joined the Progressive Party at the same time that he did. But he is extremely intelligent and articulate, as well as a far more honest commentator than nearly all those from the ANC, my current party. (Or perhaps I don’t have one any more.)

    Incidentally, I think many of the Progs – and here I include Leon, though not myself as my involvement was small – are given far too little credit for their contribution to the political progress in SA – and yes, progress is the correct term even if we are in a regressing period currently. I take comfort in the belief that the Nats were incompetent, venal and murderous, while the ANC has shown itself to be merely incompetent and venal.

  • Lyndall Beddy


    Do autistics hear voices in their heads? I thought they tried to cram out all stimuli because they felt bombarded by too much which they can’t sift.

    Schitzophrenics do hear voices. In Xhosa tradition they are visionaries, but must first be cured by living with a sangoma for long enough. Read “Living in Two Worlds” by the Psychiatrist Vera Burmann.

  • Bonny Parker

    Tony Leon? He was right to quit active politics.

  • Xolani

    To Charlene:
    Tony Leon, hmmm. . .

    Today’s morning Live showed him as portrayed in this article. More friedly, less arrogant almost normal.

    However, I still have my skepticism about him. First of all, I do not know what his plans are and why he is so hand and cheek with Americans now more than ever.

    Could a leopard change its spots or is he simply a chameleon camouflaging? The latter sounds like reason to me more than anything else.

  • Rory Short

    I left the DA because I could no longer stomach Tony Leon’s approach as epitomised by the fight back campaign. I felt we needed an opposition yes but a constructive rather than adverserial one. After all we are all in this together and an acknowledgement of that fact is the only basis on which we can make tangible progress as a country.

  • sekhoane

    Charlene, thanks for your waggish review of Tony Leon’s tome. I hope it will soon be in the local bookstores in Baltimore where I am temporarily domiciled.

    Based on daily my reading of the bloviations by our news commentariate, one would think our country is in the grip of an anomie that is inexorably hurtling us toward Armageddon. I must confess, I’m susceptible to those apprehensions sometimes. However, whenever I trawl through the on-line news accounts of other countries, I always awaken, thank God, to the fact that our country is merely being blasted by the crosswinds of a robust democracy rather than the now routine and random bomb blasts in a seemingly endless list of countries including China, Pakistan, Iraq, India and Georgia. I do not for a moment discount our high crime index.

    I have yet to hear or read that any of the daily tsunami of impudently expressed opinions against the ANC has been followed by a visit by jack-booted gendarmes, the claptraps of the likes of Vavi and Malema notwithstanding. The Constitution, civic organisations, ultra-vigilant opposition parties who are following a path blazed by Tony Leon, and the “adults“ in the ANC itself, are among the manifold entities that form an effective cordon sanitaire against what some think is an impending Zimbabweitis.

  • Lyndall Beddy

    Xolani and Rory

    I think you miss the point. I don’t much like Leon’s style, and I did NOT like the “Fight Back” campaign. I voted ID in that election.

    BUT without Leon there would be NO opposition and no democracy.

    The truth is that this new theory of “Governments of National Unity” destroys democracy and opposition politics. Did you notice what Leon was offered, and turned down, was what Nkomo accepted in Zim (under pressure) and so opposition died for a generation!

    De Klerk says the same thing in his autobiography. That the Government of national unity might have been good for the ANC but destroyed the NP, because you can’t be both in government AND in opposition!

  • Sarah Britten

    I also voted ID. What a disappointment they turned out to be. Never again.

  • Xolani

    To Lyndall:

    Well I can also claim to have voted for the NP during the “Fight Back” campaign. How could you dispute that, you were not there when I cast my vote. In the same manner you can say you voted for the ID when perhaps you did not. No-one would know but you and your ballot.

    Moving forward, I -to begin with- am not in favour of Governments of National Unity. I believe that this kind of politicking leaves much to be desired for as the will of the people tends to be ignored while politicians continue to stab each other in the back during negotiations.

    Consider the following:

    Therefore I do not agree with the notion of GoNU. They just rob the electorate of their freedom to choose and elect a leader they would consider appropriate for running their country.

    Back to Joshua Nkomo’s case, kindly elaborate how he was under “pressure” and from who this “pressure” came from.

    Which post in cabinet did Joshua particularly accept? As far as I know he declined Mugabe’s proposal of making him (Joshua) a ceremonial president. Source: Hill, Geoff. The Battle for Zimbabwe: The Final Countdown, 2003. Page 52. “Nkomo was offered the ceremonial post of President, but declined.”

    For a more detailed description of Joshua Nkomo and his tenure in politics read: ‘The Story of My Life’ published in 1985, You do know that he died (in the year July,1 1999), right.

    But that is not my interest. As aforementioned, I am dubious about Tony Leon’s character. The reasons behind his political ideology, what he enjoys doing in life. Most importantly what is his connection with the Americans?
    Why did he relinquish power in the DA? Did he perhaps finally come to his senses and realise that there is no future in it? Then again why would he still remain as an MP?

    If this is not the case, why is he still in the DA?

  • Xolani

    To Sarah:
    In light of the following: “I also voted ID. What a disappointment they turned out to be. Never again.”
    In what regard has the ID disappointed you? What did they promise you –as part of the electorate- and how so did they not rise to the occasion they had promised?

    When was this? Was it for the 2004 elections? Did you vote in the Municipal (Local government) elections (March1, 2006) or were you already gone to Australia by then?

    What if the ID changes strategy will you vote for them? What would you like to see in a political party of your choice? Do you agree with the resurrection of the National Party, as reported in the news?

    Are you going to give up on them that easily? Isn’t saying “never again” a bit naïve? How many times –in the past- have you voted for the ID? Don’t they deserve a second chance? Patricia has worked on the Arms deal since 1999 recently she visited Germany, the UK etc on a fact finding mission. Do you see her consistency? Why do you want to part with them so prematurely?

    How has the ID failed you? Don’t you think that the ID is the real democratic party in SA? What are your views on politics as we draw closer to 2009?

  • Lyndall Beddy


    Me too – never again. Not after she broke her word and supported the ANC candidate for mayor of Cape Town immediately afterwards!


    I did write a letter to the Cape Times, which was published, supporting the ID as well as vote for them. Proof enough for you?

    The pressure on Nkomo was the slaughter in Matebeleland, just like the pressure on Morgan now is the slaughter of his supporters. Mugabe is just using the same proccess of intimidation that he has used twice before- the first in 1980. But I will read that biography, if the author is credible, and it is an authorised biography. The title sounds like it is an autobiography so it should be.

    I am very dubious about Zuma’s character, and a few others in the ANC – pity THEY don’t come to their senses.

    The first country Mandela visited when he came out of prison was not Russia, as everyone expected, but the USA. You have me worried. What do you think his connection is with America? I always assumed he was merely fundraising for the ANC, but maybe it was more sinister?

  • Xolani

    To Lyndall:

    “The story of my life” is an autobiography written by Joshua Nkomo. Click on these links for further details.

    Well you can assess Joshua Nkomo’s credibility after reading a little bit more about him.
    Click on the following:

    Moving on, proof, evidence, substantiation is never cited for a particular person(s) –in other words I can scrutinize your proof, furthermore I can never say that it suits me personally or otherwise, as you requested- it is there to show structure, evidence and concrete to the argument(s) or points raised in an article, entry, passage etc

    What do you mean by “pity THEY don’t come to their senses.” When referring to ANC cadres. Which ones specifically? By “senses” what is that you are referring to in particular. Who is “they”? Are you looking at individuals or are you taking that all ANC members are an extension of Zuma or Mbeki? Kindly elaborate.

    Is Tony Leon fundraising for the DA? The same party he relinquished power from. Now that just does not sit well with me. He is 52 years of age and could possibly be floating his own company/companies in the US. What I want to know is why is he mum about this.

    Well I am going to buy his book and see if he elaborates on this. But I must say that he need not worry about support as he has it in sundry –or should I say in abundance, in surplus, in mouthfuls, well you tell me Tony cadre.

    It’As funny how you accuse me of ANC drivel when you yourself speak for Tony as if he paid you (no offence).

  • Pete

    I never liked Tony Leon before he resigned as leader of the DA (too smarmy, too oppositional for the sake of being oppositional, too keen to show how clever he is etc.) but he does sound a lot more fun (and entertaining) in this post. And he clearly is clued up about local (and international) politics. Stepping down in favour of Helen Zille was the best thing he did, and it seems to have freed him up to be the kind of elder statesman that you describe. Good luck to him.

  • Vapour

    @Lyndall of course you can be in government and in opposition. Or is that not what the ANC is doing right now? (The Tripartite agreement aka dumb, dumber and dumbest) In actual fact they contradict themselves with such vigorous regularity and hilarity that I for one believe they are not only the most effective opposition to themselves but certainly the most entertaining bunch of drunkards I have witnessed since Verwoed and his cronies invented themselves.

    The problem with Tony is that he always stood for what can be seen as a principled position and of course in the world of South African politics lies have always won the day.

  • japes


    Floating their own compamies is what ANC politicos do, only not in the US but in SA to take advantage of contracts from their pals still in government.

  • Xolani

    To Japes:
    The difference is that most ANC members have /and do to declare interest to the National Assembly. Mps such as Naledi Pandor who has shares in private companies. This is a parliamentary rule for all National Assembly members not just to the ANC.
    If he does have businesses, why is he not declaring this to parliament? What is he hiding?
    Many ANC MPs who hid away their businesses from parliament got very heavy fines. With many afraid of declaring because their business deals were not so legal. Remember the likes of Tony Yengeni?
    If this is the route that most who don’t declare go through. What are Leon’s chances of actually declaring?

  • japes

    Probably similar to Patrick Lekota’s and the others whose wives / husbands / children / uncles etc gather round to scoff at the government trough. Didn’t join the struggle to be poor eh and stuff the poor. Old Tony is a drop in the ocean.

  • Lyndall Beddy


    If you are in government and in opposition – what happens if you ( eg MDC) disapprove of a policy and the majority (Zanu-PF) support it AND it gets made law – do you, the MDC, approve the policy YOUR OWN GOVERNMENT passed or not? And then WHERE is integrity or opposition?

  • Lyndall Beddy


    Tony Leon makes the same point in his autobiography. Mandela offered him a post in his cabinet. Leon asked what would happen if he disagreed. Mandela said his views would be debated but then he would be expected to respect the decicion of the majority EVEN if he disageed. Leon realised that would mean NO OPPOSITION POSSIBLE!

    Democracy is dependant on an OPPOSTION keeping government accountable!

  • James Tobias

    Put all petty political persuasions and aside for once and read the book in conjunction with other prominent political SA books about at the moment.

    It will give us all an insight as to what has/is going on.

    The Ostrich syndrome is defunct.

  • Xolani

    To Japes:

    In light of: “Old Tony is a drop in the ocean.” He must still declare whether he has private businesses or not!

    The mere fact is that all of them must declare and that is my point exactly. No special treatment for Tony. Especially considering that he was the one who was so robust about ANC politicians not declaring interest to parliament.

    Well let his own medicine heal him!