Next Wednesday, Tony Leon’s friends will be bid him and Michal a fond adios as they depart for wonderful Argentina. I am seething with envy. So is Richard Calland. His M&G column “Tony, I want your job in Buenos Aries” two weeks ago was so full of animus, it demands a response — albeit a “Jon-lite” retort. (Come on, I’ve done Ray McCauley this week, so to speak). Not that Thabo Mbeki’s favourite chihuahua needs anyone to defend him. Calland waspishly wrote: “How did you (TL), of all people, land this job? Clearly, I have been going about things in entirely the wrong way — carefully choosing my words, articulating a delicate sense of empathy, striving for balanced commentary … Instead, I should have been adopting a completely different tone when dealing with the ruling class and the ANC establishment. Your approach — acidic, sarcastic, snobbish, scoffing, condescending, unforgiving, smug, patronising, sneering, but otherwise totally reasonable — has prevailed.” Ouch. Calland is a tad puffed up and he ends up revealing more about himself than Tony. Funny that. While noting Calland’s self-trumpeted credentials, Leon was, after all, the constitutionally mandated leader of the official opposition — the political leader of three million people — who bequeathed to Helen Zille a highly professional and resourced going concern. Yes, working for a predominately black opposition party which places a premium on political etiquette over the last decade, I sometimes recoiled at Tony’s sharp tongue. Nor did he have the “common touch” — or affect to. But his facts were always marshalled with military precision and his case meticulously prepared.
I think I understood the man best when he said to me many years ago: “It is okay for you. You can leave (an option, I think, open to Calland too). We have nowhere to go if it does not work out.” There is a clue here to how Tony understood his role.
Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk birthed the new nation: the peacemakers and reconcilers. Mbeki, for better and worse, was the key policy driver for the first fourteen years of our democracy. Desmond Tutu and Mangosuthu Buthelezi perfected the role of the nation’s elder statesmen: one outside Parliament, the other inside. It fell to Tony to play a different — and less “sexy” — role: his dogged championing of the centrality of Parliament and his tenacious defence of our liberal democratic Constitution. He did this when the ANC was slavishly pursuing the so-called national democratic revolution and the political climes were not as tolerant as they are today.
I also doubt our leaders, with the exception of Mbeki, saw Tony through Calland’s eyes. But then who am I? What I can testify to, however, is that whenever I heard my boss, a courtly man, speak of him, the words “Tony Leon” and “gentleman” invariably went together.
And now for something completely different. I can reveal that when Tony presents his credentials to President Cristina Elizabeth Fernández de Kirchner at the baby pink Casa Rosada, he could tell the president that her husband, Nestor, had briefly met his brother Peter earlier this year. It was on a late autumn flight south to icy Patagonia that Peter, my longsuffering travelling companion, sagely gave me his Economist-like appraisal of the Kirchner’s Peronist government along the lines of “nepotistic, talks left, acts right, etc … ” (sound familiar?) Nestor had, in an odd domestic arrangement for kin and country, handed over the presidency to his wife Cristina thereby holding out the prospect for another term or two for him (l am keeping my fingers crossed that the Mrs Zumas of Nkandla don’t read Thought Leader).
And it came to pass on our last night, after a few days close-by to the indigo blue Perito Moreno glacier, that the Kirchner’s were having dinner at a neighbouring table to us. The most extraordinary thing happened after the presidential party had heartily consumed their Patagonian spit-roasted lamb washed down with copious amounts of velvety Malbec nectar. Cristina departed first clutching her chic leather handbag. Alone and, apparently, unnoticed. Then Nestor and his gaggle of aides left to a lusty Latino round of applause and lots of gaucho backslapping. I mused that it was kind of like an Argentine Margaret and Denis Thatcher in reverse (She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, of course, would have gone Krakatau and Denis, I suspect, would have been in the dog box for a very long time). As Nestor passed our table dressed in garb fit for felling trees, he paused for a Blackberry picture with Peter and a few pleasantries. Peter was overcome and proclaimed that such a thing could never happen in SA!
After this joyous interlude, the waiter told us that the president, or should I say the presidents, lived next door to our hotel. The Kirchners also owned the luxurious Casa Los Sauces hotel, I later read, on the land adjoining their Santa Cruz retreat. With such huge media attention surrounding the woman who was nicknamed, lazily, the new Evita – and who shares the Western Cape leaderene’s penchant for Botox — you might wonder, like the gossipy article I read, how a hotel secured permission to build a property in what is essentially her back garden (it would be like a boutique hotel being built at a certain Nkandla homestead. Imagine!) Yet, somewhat bizarrely, the project was all her idea. Even more intriguing was Cristina’s hands-on role. Although her involvement was wisely kept under wraps when she campaigned for the presidency, she has since been named as the inspiration behind the hotel’s uber-stylish interiors. It seems that Tony and Michal will have plenty to talk about with the Kirchners if boring old statecraft runs dry.