27 August 2012| By Martin Williams | The Citizen Online
When South Africa’s ambassador to Argentina was in Johannesburg recently, he was required to fill in his name upon driving into a secured parking area.
“You’re Tony Leon,” said the security guard. “I thought you were dead”. Leon related the story to me in the lobby of the Park Hyatt Hotel in Mendoza, a few hours before the Springboks faced Argentina at the Malvinas Stadium on Saturday.
We had pre-arranged this interview amid what was for him a busy week, crammed with receptions and business briefings centred on the ascension of the Pumas to what is now the four-nations Rugby Championship.
The previous evening, at a function in honour of the Springboks, Leon had shared with former Bok captain and current commentator Bob Skinstadt the experience of being a well-known face on TV.
“People assume a familiarity. They think they know you. And when you disappear they assume you’re dead, but you’re not. You’re doing other things, off TV” said the envoy who will be leaving his post on September 28. Right there in the foyer, the accuracy of the first part of what he was saying was being played out.
We were continually interrupted by people, many of them strangers, wanting to shake his hand or have their photo taken with him. That’s in addition to the large number of Argentines and South Africans who actually know him and greeted him in passing. Tony Leon is very much alive. It was clear from the several gatherings I attended that he has been active.
The Pumas’ first home match in the Rugby Championship, with all the accompanying commercial buzz, is a fitting climax to his brief diplomatic career which saw the volume and value of exports from South Africa to Argentina increase by 80 percent from 2010 to 2011, to reach R1.3 billion. The number of Argentines visiting South Africa has increased by 122 percent since 2009. Ever the diplomat, Leon praises his team. But it is clear from talking to a range of affected people that the energy that has driven SA’s mission for the past few years would not have been achieved without what Standard Bank’s boss in Argentina, Johan Roets, calls Leon’s “infectious enthusiasm”.
So, what lies ahead for Leon, who will be a mere 55 when he arrives back at his home in Cape Town? He is finishing his third book, The Accidental Diplomat: From Parliament to Patagonia. It won’t be as hard-hitting or as long as his 776-page On The Contrary, which explored some of his tough battles in politics, where he led the Democratic Alliance (DA) to new heights. Rather it will explain how he came to represent a South Africa led by Jacob Zuma’s ANC.
Leon will also serve a one-month fellowship at the Swedish-funded Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Studies, where he will “interact with people much more intellectual than me. Basically you write, you talk. I will do there in a more serious way what I’m doing in my book, which is to ask: ‘Where in the world is South Africa?’ “We have a whole set of foreign policy objectives. Do they align with what I think should be the diplomatic function, and with what our national priorities are? “We say they do but, as TS Eliot said: ‘Between the idea and the reality falls the shadow’.” In addition, in order to “put bread on the table”, he will be involved in some business. This will include trying to create more of a bridge between South America and Africa. We can also expect to see and hear more of him on the speaking circuit. A clear and articulate writer, he is likely to have regular bylines in several publications.
Earlier, in a separate conversation, a former colleague of his said it would be a waste for South Africa not to be able to use Leon’s considerable talents, suggesting he could be deployed in a corruption-busting role. I put this to Leon. If he had the opportunity, would he like to do a job in similar vein to that of the Public Protector? “I haven’t thought of it. But I’m a little maxed-out on bureaucratic structures. “I never say never, but I’m not aware of anything and I’m not looking for anything. I’m not in that market. “But I keep an open mind about things.”
One thing he’s not going to do is go back into party politics. “You know, never step in the same river twice. The DA have got a leader and they are doing well. I will talk about it in my book. There are leaders for different eras. I was the leader in one era, and now it’s different.” Here’s his recipe for success in politics, diplomacy or in fact any career: “It’s probably clichéd but some clichés are based on repeated truths. You’ve got to be passionate about what you do, that’s the first rule of life, engagement. Don’t take yourself too seriously, and try to involve yourself in a cause greater than you.”
Although he did not start his diplomatic assignment with passionate intensity, after arriving in Buenos Aries he devoted himself to promoting South Africa, “to prove, not just to myself but to the world that you can actually do it very well and effectively without necessarily promoting the governing party, or the opposition for that matter. “You don’t have to be an ANC hack to serve South Africa. You certainly can serve South Africa from the opposition side and you can do it as effectively as anyone. “I became very passionate about the numbers. You’re no good if you can’t get the numbers up.” Well, he certainly succeeded in that, and in making South Africa more visible in Argentina.
Zenani Mandela-Dlamini, Madiba’s eldest daughter, will become South Africa’s ambassador to Argentina on October 1.
• Follow Tony Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA