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.