Thursday, March 28, 2013

Tony Leon Continues His Story with The Accidental Ambassador: From Parliament to Patagonia

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28 March 2013| Original Publication:

The Accidental Ambassador follows on from the successful Tony Leon autobiography, On the Contrary: Leading the Opposition in a Democratic South Africa (2008) to showcase Leon’s wit and sense of humour as he takes the reader on the journey of his retirement from active political life and into public service as the South African ambassador to Argentina.
From Leon’s “Job Interview” with Jacob Zuma in Tuynhuis in 2008, to his immersion in governmental bureaucracy and a three-week crash course on “How to be an Ambassador” to the strange stance and contradictions of South African foreign policy and life in Argentina, he shares with the reader his entertaining experiences of cultural immersion, comical anecdotes and political reflection. It provides great insight into the behind-the-scenes life of an ambassador.
About the author
Until recently, Tony Leon was the South African Ambassador to Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. Prior to this appointment he was the leader of the opposition in the parliament of South Africa and of the Democratic Alliance, in addition to being an attorney of the High Court in South Africa and a former lecturer in Law at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. He currently writes a weekly column in Business Day, delivers lectures and speeches to CEOs (via FutureWorld and other platforms) and is establishing a consultancy to promote business between Africa and South America.
Book details

The Accidental Ambassador: From Parliament to Patagonia by Tony Leon
Book homepage
EAN: 9781770102415

Follow Tony Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook:    

Wednesday, March 27, 2013

Seat at top table confers a status beyond money

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26 Mar 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

South Africa joining Brics despite its modest economic size is a bit like getting a good seat at a top table in a fashionable elite restaurant, writes Tony Leon

THE five developing world leaders gathering in Durban on Tuesday for the fifth Brics summit are politicians with divergent agendas and different domestic challenges to address.

They do, however, conform to the more-or-less universal laws of political leadership — when you face pressing problems at home, do one of three things: blame someone else, or change the subject, or go travelling/hold a summit. In the case of the Brics jamboree, all three boxes can be ticked simultaneously.

President Jacob Zuma’s recent interview in the Financial Times provided a master class in blame-avoidance. He blamed the apartheid legacy and the eurozone crisis for South Africa’s low-performing economy and deflected interviewer Alec Russell’s diagnosis of "four troubled years in office and a disastrous six months for South Africa’s image" by awarding his government 70% for its achievements to date.

Still, spare a thought for summit host Zuma. Insiders have criticised his foreign policy achievements as being a case of "care and maintenance" for the grandiose African Renaissance project nurtured by his predecessor, Thabo Mbeki. Yet, it was on Zuma’s watch that South Africa joined the Bric quartet of developing world leaders, despite our modest economic size, around one-fifth of the next-smallest member, Russia. It’s a bit like going to a fashionable elite restaurant: getting a good seat at a top table confers the sort of status that goes beyond money. Undoubtedly this thought has also struck other economic leaders of the developing world, who have yet to be invited and each of whom has a characteristic not represented: Mexico (Spanish and second-largest Latin American economy); Turkey (pivotal state at the bridge between Middle East and Europe); and Indonesia (high-growth Muslim Asian state).

Part of South Africa’s attractiveness to the Bric founders, who owe their provenance to the pen and acronymic ability of the very western-centric Jim O’Neill of Goldman Sachs, is as proxy for the rest of Africa.

However, Nigeria is, on some estimates, on the cusp of overtaking South Africa as the continent’s largest economy. Its central bank governor, Lamido Sanusi, recently offered his thoughts in the same forum as Zuma, the Financial Times. Both men commented on the role of China in Africa, hardly surprising since, over the past decade, African trade with China has risen from $11bn to $166bn.

Whatever Zuma’s private doubts, as host to new Chinese leader Xi Jinping, for whom the Durban summit will be one of his first foreign outings since his installation as president of China earlier this month, Zuma offered this comfort: he told western companies to stop warning against China’s embrace of Africa, advising: "We think we can see the benefits." Nigeria’s Sanusi took a far different tone. He wrote that: "China takes our primary goods and sells us manufactured ones. This was also the essence of colonialism." Actually, this was not very different from the recent remarks of another absent guest at the Durban shindig, Mbeki.

But where Sanusi struck a very different and refreshing chord from African leaders past and present was in this dose of candour: "We cannot blame the Chinese, or any other foreign power, for our country’s problems. We must blame ourselves for our fuel subsidy scams, for oil theft in the Niger Delta and for our limitless tolerance of incompetence."

There is, of course, a link between the "limitless tolerance of incompetence" and the faith that all five leaders place in the virtues of the "development state". Although, to be perfectly fair, given the European Central Bank’s cack-handed response to the latest financial crisis on one of its islands, Cyprus, the alternative and more traditional Anglo-American model is creaking at the seams.

But it is from the other Asian giant at the summit, India,that a warning voice of the limits of the state-centric approach recently emerged. While none of the summit participants could be accused of being liberal, each of them faces metastasising corruption across their body politics.

Indian author and former corporate CEO Gurcharan Das, whose latest work is splendidly entitled India Grows At Night, believes the answer to blighted governance in the world’s biggest democracy lies in the "liberal case for a strong state". He derived the book title from the fact that "India grows at night while the government sleeps". In other words, a story of private success and public failure.

But even more striking is the distinction he draws between governments that are "pro-business" and those "pro-market". The rising income disparities and embedded corruption in all five Brics countries can be partly explained by the phenomenon. Pro-business attitudes lead to crony capitalism. In contrast, a pro-market approach would meet this need: "Where the state is needed — to provide law and order, education, health and water — it performs poorly. Where it is not needed, it is hyperactive, tying people up in red tape."

Don’t expect such lashings of candour in Brics leaders’ final summit communiqué.
Follow Tony Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook:    

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

Book Launch Dates

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Book Launch dates for Tony Leon's "The Accidental Ambassador - From Parliament to Patagonia" have been set, get front row seats at one of the venues below:

Johannesburg Book Launch
Wed 10 April – Exclusive Books Hyde Park - 6pm

Cape Town Book Launches
Thurs 18 April - Exclusive Books Waterfront - 6pm
Wed 8 May - Book Lounge Event in Roeland Street - 6pm

Durban Book Launch
Wed 24 April - Adams Booksellers, Musgrave - 6pm

For more information 'Like' our Facebook page

The pope, the archbishop and the queen consort

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19 Mar 2013 | Tony Leon  | Original Publication:  BDlive
There is a fantastic disconnect in Argentina between its human capital and its broken politics, writes Tony Leon

ACCORDING to Woody Allen, 80% of life is about showing up. I can prove the wisdom of this observation: about two years ago in Buenos Aires, more out of a sense of duty than expectation, I attended a reception hosted by the Papal Nuncio — the Vatican’s ambassador to Argentina — at his palatial residence. The Nuncio is also the dean of the Buenos Aires diplomatic corps, and so was one of my then bosses. I shook hands and exchanged mumbled pleasantries — the essential code of most ambassadorial interactions — with Jorge Bergoglio, the cardinal of Buenos Aires, little realising that I was greeting the next pope and the new global head of 1.2-billion Catholics.

I suppose that outside of a few local princes of the church and diplomats, I was, until last Wednesday, probably one of a handful of South Africans to have met or even heard of a man who, in less than a week, as the new Vicar of Christ, is now one of the most recognisable people on the planet. Our own Cardinal Wilfrid Napier’s remarks on paedophiliac priests are not going to make the new pope’s job any easier.

Piers Morgan tweeted on the pope’s election that Argentina had now produced the world’s number one footballer (Lionel Messi) and the world’s number one Catholic, to which list he could have added Princess Maxima, who next month will be installed as queen consort of the Netherlands, when her husband is crowned King William. At the risk of irritating readers by referring to this column of a fortnight ago, there is a fantastic disconnect in Argentina between its human capital and its broken politics: something that has a little local resonance as well.

On the subject of bad politics and good people, the news of Bergoglio’s election as Pope Francis was probably as well received by President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner as the selection of Archbishop Desmond Tutu as head of the Anglican Church in South Africa was greeted by then president PW Botha in September 1986. Both men — the one the first non-European to lead the Church of Rome and the other the first black man to lead the Church of the Province in South Africa — were well-known opponents and arch-critics of their national presidents. "Speaking truth to power" is no local phenomenon and power, universally and usually, does not like being spoken to in critical terms.

But there is a further link between Pope Francis, Tutu and, in fact, with Princess Maxima. Within hours of the new pope’s election last week, questions appeared about his precise role in the notorious 'Dirty War,' which the Argentinian military junta prosecuted against its own citizens in six baleful and bloody years between 1976 and 1983.

The unfathomable evil of this period is difficult to express; suffice to say that the Argentinian state-sponsored killing and torture machine "removed", usually on death flights over the River Plate, anywhere between 9,000 and 30,000 desaparecidos (literally "the disappeared"). They ranged from schoolchildren to parish priests.

It was the disappearance during this period of priests Franz Jalics and Orlando Yorio, activists among the slum-dwellers of Buenos Aires, who were severely tortured and detained, but survived, that has shone a light afresh on the role of the church during this terrible time, and Bergoglio, who then headed the Jesuit order, to which one of the priests belonged.

The formula that confronts all spiritual men in times of moral turbulence — "what did he know, what did he do and was he complicit?" — has been asked of the new pontiff. The Vatican has strenuously denied any act of commission or omission by Pope Francis at the time, and he certainly, with sincere humility, has been, in recent times, a voice for the poorest and most marginalised of his flock: hence his estrangement from his country’s president.

No such ambiguity surrounds the family of the new queen consort of the Netherlands. The Dutch have put out the "not welcome" sign to Princess Maxima’s parents, who will not attend next month’s coronation. Her father, Jorge Zorreguieta, served in the high echelons of the regime of the military junta. As minister of agriculture, he claimed "to have been unaware" of the atrocities his government committed.

The literally unburied past in Argentina points in a homeward direction. I often think that we overstate some of the achievements of our constitution-making process and crown the messy and often violent nature of our transition to democracy with a sort of gauzy, often misplaced, halo.

Despite the several things we got wrong, one of the things we got right was the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, presided over by Tutu. For all its imperfections, unevenness and even incompleteness, the commission’s presence in our midst, and its glaring absence in a place like Argentina, helped move us forward a little. And in a very imperfect world, that counts for a lot.
Follow Tony Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook:       

Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Venezuela’s revolution came at enormous cost

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12 Mar 2013 | Tony Leon  | Original Publication:  BDlive

Hugo Chavez’s death changes the trajectory of the developing world and models contending within it for economic progress and democratic deepening, writes Tony Leon

IN 2011, from his enforced stay at a US correctional facility, dethroned media mogul Conrad Black described his erstwhile rival, Rupert Murdoch, as "a great bad man". This seemed a suitably contradictory epitaph for Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez, whose death last week changes the trajectory of the developing world and the models contending within it for economic progress and democratic deepening.

I happened to be in the hedonistic Brazilian coastal town of Parity when the news flashed across the TV screens in a beach bar of the demise of the Venezuelan strongman, the self-styled "El Comandante". The samba music continued to play and few of the locals in this, the largest and most consequential country by far in South America, seemed particularly stirred. In Venezuela itself, however, the masses poured onto the streets in a tumult of grief.

Back in South Africa, President Jacob Zuma’s message of condolence noted how Venezuela instituted "a dramatic change to the promotion of regional integration based upon principles of social justice". Closer examination suggests that Chavez divided the region far more than he united it and that the gains of his "revolution" were purchased at great, perhaps ruinous, cost.

Zuma’s juvenile nemesis, Julius Malema, issued his own statement of grief, which observed, with characteristic understatement, how, "despite massive resistance from rented imperialist puppets, Chavez was able to lead Venezuela into an era where the wealth was returned to … the people".

Quite who the former African National Congress Youth League president had in mind as rent-an-imperialist is not clear. But even his message was mild in comparison with the statement of Venezuelan Vice-President Nicolas Maduro, who darkly hinted that the US had caused Chavez’s cancer. Thus, a handy unifying force is found in a moment of national uncertainty.

But in some revealing ways, there is a superficial similarity between Chavez and Malema beyond their chubby features and rhetorical exuberance: both grew up in rural poverty, reared by their grandmothers, and both burnt with a charismatic determination to challenge the forces of capitalism and to use their countries’ resource wealth to address the needs of the poor. Of course, the singular difference was that Chavez was fully grown up when he ascended to power in 1998. He also presided over a country, which despite 14 years of conspicuous economic mismanagement, still contains the largest oil reserves in the world.

In fact, it was the rocketing price of oil — $10 a barrel when he was first elected, rising to more than $100 a barrel at the time of his death — that allowed Chavez the means to "buy a lot of influence in the world and to purchase the support of Venezuela’s poor", in the opinion of the Wall Street Journal.

But on the positive side of the ledger, Chavez did more than buy votes and prop up bankrupt regimes such as his close ally, Cuba, where he in effect stepped in as creditor of first and last resort after the demise of the Soviet Union. As Latin American expert Jorge Heine noted: "When Chavez took over, the standard of living for most Venezuelans hadn’t changed since 1963, when half the population lived below the poverty datum line. Poverty has now been cut in half."

But this stellar achievement came at great cost: his economic populism bequeathed to his country the highest rate of inflation (and crime levels) on the whole continent, marked by chronic food shortages and infrastructural decay. Even his country’s oil wealth has reversed itself. Having nationalised the Petroleos de Venezuela oil company, and stuffed its management with his cronies, daily oil production fell by more than 1-million barrels during the course of his rule.

On the democratic side of the ledger, the balance sheet is worse: Chavez was, in the description of one of his biographers, Rory Carroll, "a hybrid — an elected authoritarian". His country’s elections were held on time but were of the free rather than the fair variety. He closed down opposition-supporting TV stations, saturated his image via state-sponsored media and packed the Supreme Court with loyalist judges. In Carroll’s view, he was "a brilliant politician and a disastrous ruler". And while he bestrode the world and regional stages as an apostle for global equality, Chavez used his petrodollars to fuel a narco-terrorist force, the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia — People’s Army, in neighbouring Colombia. In fact, it is the less heralded rise of Colombia, on the back of market economic reforms and tough security policies, that allowed it to transform from narco-state to regional economic leader, second on the continent only to Brazil.

Colombia, Peru and Chile have followed the path of Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva’s Brazil, not Chavez’s Venezuela. That’s the road that leads to the social justice of which Zuma approvingly wrote last week. He just got the country wrong.
Follow Tony Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook:    

Saturday, March 9, 2013

SOON TO BE LAUNCHED - The Accidental Ambassador

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The Accidental Ambassador - From Parliament to Patagonia, the latest book to hit your shelves by former DA Leader and Ambassador to Argentina, Tony Leon.  Watch this space for more information around launch dates.

Available in your local book stores from April 2013.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Lessons for SA in the Crisis of Cristinanomics

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05 Mar 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

Argentina’s 'Crisis of Cristinanomics' demonstrates the damage that populist economics and misgovernance can do to a country’s economy, writes Tony Leon

THE point of living in another country can be to learn lessons for your own. In September, at the end of my ambassadorship to Argentina I took a last walk down the boulevards in Buenos Aires. I noted the empty display windows in one of its upmarket emporiums. Fashion retailer Louis Vuitton — ironically a favourite of handbag-wielding president Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner — had just announced it was closing its doors. Its exit from the country, following fast on the departure of other international luxury brands was the latest scene in a long-playing melodrama — the Crisis of Cristinanomics.

My stroll inspired an article I wrote at the time for the Financial Times. I made the unexceptional point that Argentina was heading, and not for the first time in its turbulent history, over an economic cliff as people raced to dump their pesos for dollars and a zealous and increasingly beleaguered government fought back through draconian currency controls, manipulating economic data and import-suppression measures. This led to a flurry of online and printed responses, some of which suggested my comment to be either alarmist or undiplomatic.

Returning last week for a brief visit to Buenos Aires, I had the opportunity to witness first-hand how the situation has evolved after a five-month absence.

First, the number of vacant shop windows has increased and few foreign products are on display. For the bulk of the lower middle-class, from which the president draws her votes, this is of little consequence. But now in a desperate effort to stem the effects of rampant inflation, the government has decreed that supermarkets will freeze their prices for two months. As with every attempt to impose price stability through coercion rather than the forces of the market, the law of perverse consequences kicks in: emptying shelves and unavailable products as producers simply hold back on production and distribution until the situation normalises.

Meanwhile, the hard-pressed trade unions have joined the forces of the fragmented opposition as they seek wage hikes of double the official rate of inflation. Of course, the rich are inconvenienced, but the growing army of the poor and the pensioners are truly hit hard as their earnings and savings are debased. Not surprisingly, the number of street protests has mushroomed.

Perhaps nothing demonstrates the institutional damage populist economics and misgovernance have wrought on this once front-ranking economy (famously, in 1930 Argentina was one of the 10 wealthiest countries in the world) than the fight around the true rate of inflation in the country. Early last month, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) took the unusual step of officially censuring Argentina for its official statistics. It put the country on notice that if its blatantly manipulated inflation numbers are not corrected by September, it will face a range of sanctions, including possible expulsion. The Economist harrumphed that, once again, "Argentina seems incapable of playing by the same rules as everyone else". The magazine has refused to publish the country’s cooked numbers.

But for Kirchner, who practises confrontation as an art form, the IMF is simply another enemy. She sent out a stream of angry tweets denouncing the organisation as "neocolonialist" and "an ally of the banks". For a government whose policies have excluded it from international credit markets and whose raiding of private pension funds and nationalisation of foreign companies have highlighted its desperate search for revenue to continue the public hand-outs that buy it votes, there is a sort of logic behind the manipulation.

The spread between the official rate of inflation and the real rise in prices is estimated to be about 15 percentage points or more, and this is reflected in the annual wage increase. But the manipulation allows the government to save about $2.5bn on inflation-linked bonds.

And it’s not just the inflation numbers that are fudged. During a walk downtown shopping, I was besieged by moneychangers offering a black market (or "blue" in honour of the nation’s flag) rate of 7.85 pesos a dollar, nearly 40% higher than the official, and highly manipulated, rate. Arbitraging the currency is the one growth industry in this economically beleaguered country.

During my visit, I was struck, again, by a huge disconnect. On the one hand the country has fantastic human capital and some world-class companies (which allow it to produce enough food to feed half a billion people in the world). On the other, in the words of Argentinian academic Pierpaolo Barbieri, the economy is being brought to a standstill by a government that practises "a toxic mix of inflation, authoritarianism and corruption".

No end of lessons then for Pretoria to learn, and unlearn, from Buenos Aires.

Apology: In last week’s column I incorrectly cited the author of How to Win Friends and Influence People. The correct author is Dale Carnegie.

Follow Tony Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA