He cut his political teeth as a young city council hopeful for the then Progressive Party (PP) in a bitterly contested by-election in the Johannesburg suburb of Yeoville in 1986, eventually scraping home by 39 votes.
No one, then, could possibly have guessed just how well this young upstart was destined to perform, in a political career that was to span nearly three decades and during which he was to rise to the very pinnacle of opposition politics in South Africa.
On his retirement, former president Nelson Mandela said: “Your contribution to democracy is enormous. You have far more support for all you have done than you might ever read about”.
One of South Africa’s leading political commentators Justice Malala wrote about him: “Every South African should wake up today and say a little thank-you to Tony Leon ... he was fearless when many were fearful, vocal when many had lost their voices, openly critical when many would only speak in whispers ... the man has done a remarkable job.”
Mandela’s warmth toward this adversary is probably most movingly illustrated in this classic example from Leon’s book: When Mandela labelled the DA “a Mickey Mouse Party”, Leon retorted that, if this was the case, then Mandela must lead “a Goofy government”.
Some time later, as Leon lay in a hospital bed awaiting major heart surgery the following day, there was a knock on the door, “and a world-famous voice, by now very familiar to me, called out from the other side: ‘Hello, Mickey Mouse, this is Goofy. Can I come in?’” It was vintage Mandela…
This is Leadership’s interview with Tony Leon, a remarkable South African whose place in history is assured.
Can you offer us a few comments on your latest book, Opposite Mandela: Encounters with South Africa’s Icon?
Well, the key factor was that there is a lot of literature about Nelson Mandela, a lot of which I consulted, as you can see in the bibliography, but it occurred to me that no one had written a book, which was the only one that I could write, about that consequential era, about what it was like to oppose Mandela, rather than be his friend, his warder, his secretary or his authorised biographer.
I think some of the more remarkable features, not only of Mandela as a person but also of that era which Mandela bestrode – between 1990 and 1999, really, from his release to the end of his presidency – was something that I, simply by virtue of the fact of being the head of an opposition party at that time, as well as being the Member of Parliament for Houghton, the area that Mandela moved into in 1992, had this proximity to Nelson Mandela.
There were some very important lessons to be drawn from that era, not just in terms of how adaptive he was as a politician and how shrewd, and how different, perhaps, from what you would normally expect from a political adversary, but also because of some of the clues it salted about where South Africa is now and what trajectory it’s on. The idea for such a book, which was first mooted by Jonathan Ball himself, seemed a good one because I had those war stories and that proximity that really reflected the Mandela personality in the round. It wasn’t just admiration or warm moments, although there were plenty of those, but also some of the more adversarial interactions, which were absolutely necessary to help create a functioning democracy – and he handled those well, in the main.
The point is that Mandela was intensely human and also, something that is forgotten sometimes, a very partisan politician – there is just no doubt that had he been with us (in May) for the election, he would certainly have voted for the ANC on both ballots and would have taken about 32 seconds to make those crosses. He was a murg en been ANC supporter. He gave his life for the ANC and the cause of a democratic South Africa and, at critical moments in his presidency, he put the country above party, and we probably haven’t seen much of that since he left the presidency in 1994.
Would you say that by putting country above party in the way you describe, Mandela bore out the Public Protector’s recent statement that self-interest is incompatible with leadership?
Yes, except I disagree with Thuli Madonsela in that there is a great deal of self-interest in leadership, otherwise you’d have people who’d never lead at all, always deferring to the collective, to what the group wants. So I think Mandela had his vanities and his foibles, as we all do, but I think an effective good leader knows when to actually draw the line.
One of the earliest things I draw attention to in my book, going back to the 1994 election – which today we romanticise, but which was actually a very jaded affair when the country was on the cusp not only of violence but also of not having a credible outcome – was that at a critical moment Mandela, despite everyone in his party wanting to do something to denounce the election in Natal because of the IFP’s pirate voting stations, put his foot down and said: “Tell the comrades in Natal and in the Cape to be prepared to lose.” Now that came from someone who was about to become president, who considered the country’s interests were more important than the party’s interests in that case.
How do the likes of Mmusi Maimane compare, with his slick media campaign?
It’s too early to tell. I’ve met Mmusi at his request two or three times and he seems a very engaged chap, but he’s very young, very inexperienced – we don’t know. Now, being the leader of the parliamentary opposition – and I don’t derogate from his tremendous performance on the campaign trail – requires more than the ability to make a speech. You have to lead a very diverse team with some outsize personalities, and you have to engage what is called the ‘ear of the house’. The ANC hated what I said most of the time – not Mandela, but most of them – but they certainly paid attention. You have to command the respect of parliament, even if they don’t like a single word you’re saying, and that is something that’s earned through performance, not given because you have a title. And you also have to project an alternative upon the country. Now, Maimane is a young person who hasn’t spent a day in parliament, so it’s impossible to predict his performance. Hopefully, unlike his predecessor, he will spend a full five years in parliament, and then we can answer the question.
Has Lindiwe Mazibuko acquitted herself well or has she prejudiced the DA in some way with her resignation?
Having met her personally a few times and watched her perform, I think she has courage, intelligence and principle, which are very important things, but clearly she lacks staying power. I don’t know what the background factors were, but I do think that if you’re going to have a leader in parliament and a leader in the country who is not the leader of the parliamentary opposition, you’re going to have tension between those two roles. To use a Thabo Mbekism, you have two centres of power, which has conflict inherent within it. Or you say parliament doesn’t really matter, we don’t need our national leader in parliament – it’s irrelevant. So if parliament was going to be restored as an institution to take seriously, it would be helpful if the national leader of the opposition was also the parliamentary leader of the opposition.
How has Helen Zille fared recently, in your opinion?
To me, the external auditor of any political party is that results board at the IEC – whatever else you’ve done right or wrong, that’s how you’ll be judged. That’s why clearly failed leaders, like my friend Mangosotho Buthelezi – or Mamphela Ramphele, to draw a more extreme example – should read the writing on the wall and draw the logical conclusions.
In terms of performance and achievement, Helen Zille has been a very good leader for the DA. She’s grown the party to where it is now. Under my watch, it grew sixfold, but that was off a very low base – a bankroet poedel, as they say in Afrikaans. I bequeathed her a much bigger, more diverse party, and she has doubled that. On that basis, you can’t fault her. The other achievement she has under her belt is the good govern of the Western Cape, and before that, the City of Cape Town. So if you add up those three not inconsiderable achievements, it’s significant.
What are some of her flaws?
Well, she’s always been pretty obstinate, she has a ‘my way or the highway’ approach, but some of that is consequential on being tough-minded – I think the word is hardegat. You just don’t get anywhere on the stony road of opposition politics without being single-minded and focused. I’m not really in a position to judge because I was the leader before her and haven’t been around since then in any meaningful way. You’d have to ask people closer to her leadership style. But the necessary question she’ll have to ask herself is whether she’ll lead the party into the next general election. I would say almost definitely not. I’d be amazed. I think two elections is about right for any leader.
So you don’t think the Economic Freedom Fighters party has much to offer?
Well, it’s a radical, populist version of the ANC. That’s another unnoticed feature of the 2014 election results: that while the ANC is ‘down’ to 62%, the EFF, which picked up some 6%, is merely a more left-wing version of the ANC, so you could argue that the ANC and its iterations got nearly 70% of the vote.
Which government personalities today offer themselves as beacons of hope in terms of leadership?
There are a few. People I know and have a high regard for include people like Cyril Ramaphosa. I know he’s somewhat discounted as being too soft, too comfortable, too rich or too careful – and that may all be true – but I’ve known him since we were both in our twenties, and he’s a smart man, he’s very thoughtful, and he’s very tough-minded when he needs to be. If he brings those skills to the table in a meaningful way, rather than occupying a position and doing nothing, then that would be very helpful. He also understands several environments – the business one, the political one, and the union one – which very few people do.
I also have a high regard for Tito Mboweni, whom I crossed swords with countless times in parliament when I was also the labour spokesman for the DP; we had so few MPs. I describe his era in my book. Mboweni was very intelligent, very adversarial, but you could have a huge row with him and then have a drink with him afterward, or dinner, as it often happened.
On a personal level, do you miss the cut-and-thrust of politics?
Tony Benn once said, “I’m leaving parliament to spend more time on politics.” I don’t miss parliament because since the glory days of 1994 to 1999, it’s a much diminished place, for various reasons. It has been sidelined as a national institution of importance. I don’t think the ANC sends its A-team to parliament at all, while on the opposition side, there is a sense not so much of calling or vocation but that it’s rather a nice job to have. There are notable exceptions, of course, MPs for whom I have a very high regard.
But I’ve moved on now. I do enjoy engaging in public debate when the occasion arises.
I also do some other things to make money, which is necessary, despite what you may read about parliamentary pensions. I do a lot of sovereign risk analysis on Africa and Latin America for a business intelligence company called K2, based in London. I also do many lectures overseas. My wife, Michal, has a flourishing business coaching practice.
Returning to the book, what were some of the standout moments you had with Mandela?
There were many – I guess that’s why I wrote the book! I really think my most significant interaction with Mandela, described in a chapter called ”The Temptation”, was when very early one morning Mandela asked me to come to his house, and asked me to become part of the government, to join the Cabinet. We were a party of seven MPs and we interrogated that very closely, he and I, in a number of meetings. And for reasons that are explained in the book, I declined; it wouldn’t have been an independent opposition had I fallen for the temptation. But it’s hard to say no to Mandela. However, the actual dynamic of our relationship didn’t change an iota – he didn’t suddenly become cold or distant, and I didn’t feel spurned.
Looking at what is going on in the country at the moment, what do you think would be Mandela’s greatest concern?
It would be impertinent for me to answer that. The last conversation of any significance I had with him was way back in December 2006. I don’t want to overstate my proximity to Mandela’s thinking.
But certainly, if you look at the track record of things that Mandela not only said but practised, he could not be happy with the predations against the rule of law by the government or the presidency. He could not be happy with the undermining of the Constitution.
Mr (Ngoako) Ramatlodi, a senior member of the ANC, said in 2011 – and this is a view that is widely held among the ANC, although not perhaps a majority view – that “the constitutional transition was a victory for apartheid forces who wanted to maintain white domination under a black government, emptying the legislature of real power and giving it to other constitutional and civil society movements”. I cannot think that Mandela, who demonstrated by and large a very keen abiding commitment to the Constitution, helping draft it and signing it into law in 1996, would have been thrilled with that. Without claiming to intuit the inner thoughts of Nelson Mandela, but based on his public behaviour, that must have been a source of deep concern to him today.
Tony Leon’s Opposite Mandela: Encounters With South Africa’s Icon is published by Jonathan Ball.
“Mandela was intensely human and also, something that is forgotten sometimes, a very partisan politician – there is just no doubt that had he been with us for the election, he would certainly have voted for the ANC”