Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Don't cry for me, Argentina

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30 Apr 2013 | Stephen Coan | Original Publication:  The Witness

ANYONE who has visited Argentina, especially its capital, Buenos Aires, will likely agree with Tony Leon that it is a place where “magic realism is reality”.

Dubbed the “Paris of the South”, this bustling city sports a sophisticated façade, reflected in the wide boulevards of the city centre, but edge beyond the sound of the tango and the smell of coffee, and you find a disconcerting blend of rich and poor: dilapidated buildings, broken pavements, and ubiquitous reminders of the country’s chequered past, not least in the kaleidoscope of races and cultures walking the streets — from the indigenous Indians, decimated by the Spanish conquerors, to the immigrants of the 20th century.

Leon, former leader of the opposition and head of the Democratic Alliance, enjoyed a deep immersion in the beguiling melting pot of Buenos Aires, thanks to serving three years as the South African ambassador and plenipotentiary to Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, now  chronicled in his book The Accidental Ambassador.

To explain the country’s racial jigsaw, Leon quotes its most famous writer, Jorge Luis Borges, who described Argentina as “an imported country — everyone here is really from somewhere else”.

The first half of the 20th century saw a huge immigration of people from Europe — English, Irish, French, East Europeans and a large proportion of Italians — who all became part of a boom economy, largely based on beef. An “emigrant mélange” that is acknowledged in the national joke: an Argentine is an Italian who speaks Spanish, acts like a Frenchman, but secretly wishes he were English.

“There is no escaping the country’s half-baked identity,” says Leon, “thanks in part to its mainly imported population. And it’s still not come to terms with that.”

Nor has Argentina comes to terms with its violent past, especially the Dirty War of 1976 to 1983, when a military junta stepped in after a series of quasi dictators — including the Perons — had plunged the country into chaos. This was the time of “the disappeared”, a time of torture, state-sponsored killings and murder — “9 000 was the verified figure, but some estimates suggest nearly 30 000,” says Leon. “It was apartheid on an industrial scale.”

The truth of much of what happened has never come out. “They never had a Truth and Reconciliation Commission or its equivalent,” says Leon. “I’m not saying that everything came out via the TRC, but we made a much better fist of it than the Argentinians.”

One of the problems of not having had some sort of TRC process is that nothing was officially disclosed, says Leon. “So when anyone of note from that period comes into high office, the question is ‘What did you do in the war?’” says Leon.

As it was with Pope Francis, who, until his election as pope earlier this year, Leon had known as the Argentine Cardinal Jorge Bergoglio. “He is a very good man, but there are questions hanging over him.”

In 2011, thanks to Bergoglio’s outspoken criticism of Cristina Kirchner’s current government, Leon found himself and other diplomats flown to the city of Resistencia in the far northern province of Chaco, to listen to Kirchner’s address marking the 201st anniversary of the Day of the Revolution, after having earlier visited the city’s cathedral for a religious service.

“It was all because Cristina wouldn’t cross the road from the Pink House [the seat of government] to Bergoglio’s cathedral across the square,” says Leon.

“She hated Bergoglio because of what he said. When he became pope, she flew to Rome to bend the knee, but back home she wouldn’t cross the road.”

One topic that will get Argentines to cross the road together is the Falklands, or the Malvinas as they are known in Argentina. “It’s something that all Argentines cross the divide and unite around,” says Leon, as he found to his cost when hosting a dinner for his Argentine friends and jocularly asked one of them: “What is it about Malvinas that makes all Argentines so agitated? After all, you wouldn’t want to go and live on that windswept archipelago?”

The fiery response saw Leon thereafter determinedly maintain the recommended South African policy of “strenuous neutrality” on the subject. At least he didn’t add Borges’ famous comment on the 1982 war between Argentina and Britain as a “fight between two bald men over a comb”.

Leaving aside the legacies of the past and questions of identity, the big question is how Argentina went from boom to bust so quickly. “I was reading an essay by Marios Llosas Vargas last night, in which he is appalled by Argentina,” says Leon. “Here was a country ahead of its time, that had a functioning democracy before Europe. Now it has an economy a quarter that of Brazil and it’s heading off a cliff.”

Leon was especially chuffed at having read the essay in the original Spanish, a language, as he admits in the book, he battles with, as on the occasion he risked speaking it to welcome 250 Argentine guests visiting the South African ship Drakensberg: “Good evening and welcome, ladies and horses” — substituting the word caballos (horses) for the word caballeros (gentlemen).

As is evident from such stories, The Accidental Ambassador is an entertaining account of Leon’s three years as ambassador, in a posting that saw the poacher turn gamekeeper, “representing a government I had resolutely opposed”. One senses it’s a paradox he never quite resolved.

When an ambassadorship was first mooted, Leon decided he would only accept a posting where he would not have to promote policies he did not agree with. “Argentina was a comfortable fit,” he says. “There were no issues to contend with. It would have been a different matter if it had been Tel Aviv or Harare.”

Ironically, it was probably South African foreign policy that played a role in shortening his stay from four years to three.

“On the other hand, I didn’t want to watch the clock,” he says. “Also, my wife couldn’t work, I have an ageing father in Durban, and I felt I had done what I set out to do.”

What did he set out to do? Boost trade between the two countries. “There was an 80% improvement while I was there,” he says. Quite an achievement in a country that imports as little as possible.

“I looked for niches,” Leon says. “Argentina is the most protectionist country in the world; there are no foreign goods. But the pampas came to our rescue. Argentina is one of the most fertile countries in the world.” And the boom in soybean production meant there was a need for fertiliser. “We had something they wanted.”

But when Leon spoke out on foreign policy — on Syria, Libya and the refusal of the Dalai Lama’s visa — there was a change of attitude towards him back in Pretoria. “Whenever I spoke on the phone to them, it was no longer ‘Hello Tony, how are you?’ but ‘Hello Tony, when are you coming back?’ I waited until the Springboks came, then I left.”

In 2012, the Springboks played in the Rugby Championship, the former tri-nations with Argentina on board, a satisfying coda to the Argentine premiere of the film Invictus, hosted by the South African embassy shortly after Leon’s arrival in 2009.

Living far from South Africa, Leon was able to view events here more dispassionately than he would have in the past.

“But I would still see things and gasp and gulp. But then, looking at Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay, I’d realise we had still got a lot of things right.”

Now Leon is back, writing a regular column for Business Day, consulting to potential trade partners and busy on “the paid lecture circuit, as opposed to the unpaid lecture circuit I was on as a politician”.

Is he having any second thoughts on his political career, his style of confrontational politics for example? “Compared to what’s happening now, I think I was rather an amateur. Now it’s like two parties are going through a really bad divorce.”

Leon’s past outspokenness on corruption and growing authoritarianism now looks prophetic. “I realised what we were up against when the sainted [Nelson] Mandela made a speech written by [Thabo] Mbeki, in which he said the opposition is destroying our society.”

“Back then, there was a strange acquiescence. Perhaps people thought they should give the benefit of the doubt, but I don’t apologise for what I said.”

Writing about South Africa in the present, Leon notes the gulf between “the fine prospectus for a better South Africa, offered by the National Planning Commission, and the dismal events at Marikana”. For Leon, crossing that gulf safely and timeously “remains the essential challenge for the future”.

As far as Leon is concerned, the jury is still out on the National Development Plan. “We need a Thatcherite determination to take on the unions in this country,” he says, “to get them on board the NDP because they seem to have declared war on it.”

But is the government itself on board? “[Jacob] Zuma told me that the NDP is front and centre of everything the government does —but he has to make it happen. We need to see it. In deeds, not words.”
• The Accidental Ambassador — From Parliament to Patagonia by Tony Leon

Tony's walk down Memory Lane at Kearsney College, Durban

April 2013| Original Publication:  http://www.kearsney.com

We are delighted to congratulate Tony Leon (1974) on the release of his book The Accidental Ambassador, From Parliament to Patagonia.

 From the ‘Job Interview’ with Jacob Zuma in 2008, a three week crash course on “How to be an Ambassador” to his cultural immersion in everything Argentinean, he will entertain us with his anecdotes and insights.

Tony met sons of fathers he knew at Kearsney
Andrea Nattrass, Pan Macmillan Publisher introduced Tony at his 1st Durban book launch at Adams as follows: "On behalf of Pan Macmillan and Adam’s Bookshop here in Musgrave Centre, I’d like to welcome you to the first KZN launch of Tony Leon’s newly published title, The Accidental Ambassador: From Parliament to Patagonia.

Tony Leon is someone who needs very little introduction. He served as South Africa’s ambassador to Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay from August 2009 to October 2012. Prior to this Tony was a member of the South African parliament for nearly 20 years; for 13 of those leading the Democratic Alliance, making him the longest serving leader of the opposition in parliament since the advent of democracy in 1994. He led and grew his party from its marginal position on the brink of political extinction into the second largest political force in South Africa.

Tony has now returned to South Africa, and is consulting to business, writing a weekly newspaper column for Business Day and, of course, has recently published this, his third book, following on from Hope and Fear: Reflections of a Democrat(1998) and the South African bestseller On the Contrary: Leading the Opposition in a Democratic South Africa (2008).

Elwyn van den Aardweg hosted Tony to tea with Janine O'Connor,
owner of Books & Books http://www.booksandbooks.com/
Pan Macmillan was delighted to be approached by Tony back in early 2012 while he was still based in Buenos Aires to consider publishing the memoir he was writing about his time in the position of ambassador. We expected to read an interesting and informative manuscript, but I have to confess we were completely unprepared for how delightfully humorous and self-deprecating many of Tony’s anecdotes proved to be. From his account of somehow losing his own socks on the aeroplane en route to Argentina and having to go through his official welcoming ceremony trying to hide the “vomit yellow” airline socks he was forced to wear, through to his discussions of the ageing lift system at his official residency that saw his efforts at sports diplomacy experience a slight setback when the Springbok rugby players couldn’t be accommodated in the elevator more than two at a time because they were such strapping specimens, my MD Terry Morris, and I, soon realised that we were dealing with a gem of a book that offered both entertainment as well as more serious reflections on issues such as misgovernance and politics in his host and home countries.

We are so pleased with the end result and want to thank not only Tony for making the writing and publishing process such a smooth-sailing one, but also, in her absence, his wife Michal, without whom we would not have successfully navigated the initial technological difficulties experienced by an author who was writing at some physical remove and wasn’t always completely comfortable with twenty-first century computer innovations. In addition, Michal compiled a “Must-See List” that can be found as an appendix to the book and details some of the highlights for any visitor to Argentina. Thank you for both your efforts, which have resulted in a highly readable book that Pan Macmillan is proud to have as one of our key titles for 2013".

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A way to keep memories of Freedom Day alive

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30 Apr 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

A vigorous press routinely reports corruption and, with an equal resoluteness, little of it is interdicted or punished, writes Tony Leon

DURING the 1990s, the hinge years of South Africa’s democratic transition, Bill Keller was based in Johannesburg as the correspondent for the New York Times. He recently revisited, in the pages of the New York Review of Books at least, our republic and penned a pithy and acute diagnosis of South Africa now and then. He described our story as simultaneously "dispiriting and inspiring".

The Freedom Day weekend provided evidence of both aspects of this paradox.

On Friday, the Mail & Guardian unveiled yet another corruption scandal — it’s almost like a weekly horror series of skulduggery in high places — concerning the alleged looting of parastatal PetroSA, and not for the first time either. My mind cast back to the 2004 general election, when the same parastatal was used as the vehicle for gross overpayments to a politically connected supplier, who promptly paid over the proceeds of his enrichment to the campaign coffers of the ruling party. Then as now, action was promised but no cuffing and charging the culprits actually happened. Thus when, on Friday, the present board airily promised to take action "to the extent that any impropriety has taken place", readers are cautioned not to hold their breath.

Keller cited as one of the crowning ironies of the new South Africa the fact that a vigorous press routinely reports corruption and, with an equal resoluteness, little of it is either interdicted or punished. Freedom of speech coexists with impunity to plunder. But had the Protection of State Information Bill been enacted in its original 2009 form, it is doubtful that even the reporting of the PetroSA saga would ever have seen the light of day.

The final passage in Parliament last week of a watered-down version of this legislation is proof of the worth of an engaged push-back by a vast sway of civil society and opposition forces acting in concert — and, to be perfectly fair, evidence of a governing party prepared to listen and act on many of the objections.

An even more ancient aphorism came to me on Freedom Day, Saturday, when the aircraft from Cape Town touched down at OR Tambo International Airport. Germany’s "Iron Chancellor", Otto von Bismarck, apparently once said: "If you enjoy eating sausages, don’t watch them being made." Undoubtedly, this has highly contemporary relevance to another current scandal, the labelling and mislabelling of our local boerewors and other meats. But Bismarck was referring to less savoury aspects of the political process. And it is a useful reminder of just what a close-run thing today’s freedom and democracy, with all their imperfections and slippages, were at the time of its bloody birth.

For example, 19 years ago to the day of our arrival, when OR Tambo International was plain Jan Smuts Airport, it was the site of the last gasp of the right-wing violence that promised to destroy our new democracy before it had even taken root — a car bomb rocked the airport, the last of a series of fatal urban explosions.

It was so loud that we even heard it at my polling station far away in the northern suburbs of Johannesburg.

"The struggle of memory against forgetting" was how author Milan Kundera described the struggle of man against power. It is also a very powerful antidote to the cynicism and ennui that beset even the most engaged local, small "d" democrats.

But then I arrived at a site of inspiration. Bobby Godsell and James Motlatsi had gathered 100 patrons at the Johannesburg Country Club to sign The Citizens Charter. Their own improbable partnership tells its own story — they first met as hostile adversaries across the great divide, which then and now separated mine management and their striking workforce. And their early encounter in 1987 took place when bad politics — South Africa was in the midst of a state of emergency — conjoined adversarial labour relations.

And yet, in the intervening 25 years, they have forged a durable partnership and they summoned us on Saturday to partner in spearheading "active citizenship".

In a word, Godsell described the time as ripe, amid all the doom and gloom gripping the land, for people "to leave the spectators’ bench and to get onto the playing field".

It is easy to dismiss the initiative as a sort of high-minded do-goodism.

Yet the very simplicity and practicality of the charter and the impressive (excluding this columnist) and hugely diverse patrons who enrolled for it, and who pitched up on Saturday afternoon, offer all South Africans the chance to do some good by doing right; from volunteering for a modest four hours of community service a month to being responsible and law-abiding citizens.

Before a feeling of hopeless indifference sweeps away the majestic promise of April 27 1994, and some of the grim events that went before it, read the charter, sign it and join in — www.citizens.za.com.
Follow Tony Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

‘Dismal science’ misled efforts to fix economy

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23 Apr 2013 | Tony Leon  | Original Publication:  BDlive
Our policy makers can’t do much about the debunking of academic economic debates but they can fix risk sovereign factors, writes Tony Leon

THE old joke about economists having called nine of the past five recessions wrong seemed especially true of the "dismal science" and even its most illustrious practitioners in recent days.

Two of the wisest owls in the Harvard aviary were recently proved wrong on a central assumption. Kenneth Rogoff and Carmen Reinhart were apparently checkmated by a doctoral student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. According to reports, Thomas Herndon, 28, said of his exposé of the basic flaws in the influential Rogoff-Reinhart 2010 study: "I couldn’t believe my eyes when I saw the basic spreadsheet error."

The paper in question is not of mere academic interest only. It has been at the heart of the recent debate on how to repair the world economy and revive it everywhere: in essence, do we spend and reflate our way out of recession or do we pull in our horns and cut public expenditure, repair national balance sheets and escape "the black hole of debt"?

Rogoff and Reinhart gave comfort and apparent empirical cover for rapid fiscal austerity, the path preferred by so-called deficit hawks, such as the US Republicans and the UK coalition government. Now, it appears that contra the central finding of the Rogoff-Reinhart study, economic growth does not fall sharply when national debt reaches 90% of gross domestic product, the percentage they had cited as the tipping point at which the walls of a national economy collapse. In other words, countries do not need necessarily to don the austerity hair shirt to boost growth on the basis (in the words of another economist, Adam Posen) that "not all debt accumulation is bad for growth". And very often, low growth heightens indebtedness rather than the reverse.

All this seems ancient and obvious history to those of the Keynesian persuasion locally and abroad. But before its local adherents from the Congress of South African Trade Unions and others in the left field apply even more pressure for looser fiscal and monetary policies, another global economic event last week, which received muted attention here, compels attention. This time it wasn’t a dispute among economists, but a message from the markets, which an aeon ago Trevor Manuel moaned were "amorphous". Formless or not, the markets decided to end the decade-long gold bull run, dropping the price of our key metal export so violently that early last week it sustained its sharpest two-day fall since 1983. If not quite amorphous, then markets crystallise, in the words of Financial Times maven John Authers, "in sharp and violent moves" as shareholders know only too well. Low Chinese growth, Japanese quantitative easing, and the Cyprus gold sell-off and less fear of inflation all played their part. Overall, the markets have taken a gloomy view of the prospects of global growth doing anything remarkable soon and have discounted the price of commodities accordingly.

Where does that leave South Africa? With skittish post-Marikana investors and a mineral regulatory regime "struggling with international best practice principles", to quote mining lawyer Peter Leon, our space in the fight for diminished investor enthusiasm was very tight. Now with a plunging gold price, it has just tightened even further.

There is a fascinating article by William Finnegan in the March 25 edition of The New Yorker about Australia’s richest, and probably most unpleasant, person, mining magnate Gina Rinehart. Buried in the account of her rise to further riches, as a result of her father Lang Hancock’s iron-ore empire, is a compelling insight into how Australia has enjoyed, despite the great recession, 21 straight years of sustained economic growth and running up big national debts to sustain its generous welfare provisions. It is also a high-wage country, whose minimum wage in US dollars is twice the federal minimum wage in the US. Yet its export growth and prosperity is significantly dependent on its mineral resources. In a word, it offers three basic factors that are glaringly absent here and in neighbouring jurisdictions: high efficiency, low sovereign risk and excellent infrastructure. Addressing the relative attractiveness and disadvantages of a developed versus frontier places of doing business, Finnegan offers this comparison: "The idea, a threat really, much repeated — that the mining multinationals will soon pick up and leave (Australia) for Africa in search of cheaper labour — ignores basic factors such as efficiency, infrastructure and sovereign risk."

He reminds readers and investors, that in January, Rio Tinto was forced to write off a $3bn investment in coal in Mozambique, largely because of infrastructure problems. It also cost the CEO his job.

Our policy makers and regulators can’t do much about the rise and later debunking of academic economic debates. But they sure can, and must, fix the risk sovereign factors which attach to our country.

Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA


Thursday, April 18, 2013

Yes, he was diplomatic

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17 April 2013  | Martin Williams | Original Publication:  The Citizen

Tony Leon is a good writer. Good enough to command a regular column in Business Day, whose editor, Peter Bruce, remarked at the book launch last week that Leon sustains his standard without applying the journalistic rule that adjectives should be avoided.
nullNot rated yet.
The Accidental Ambassador is full of adjectives. Yet it is captivating because Leon is an astute, well-informed observer who enjoys entertaining. He  does his homework, so his observations are interspersed with interesting information gleaned from research.

Leon did not set out to be an ambassador. The job came about after he baulked at  Jacob Zuma’s request for him to serve on the Human Rights Commission.  Having recently visited his friend Douglas Gibson, then ambassador to Thailand, Leon hinted that he too would like a diplomatic post. And so it came to pass .

Patagonia doesn’t loom large in the book but  makes for a catchy subtitle. He paid a brief visit to the Boers at the end of the world, in southeast  Argentina. About 800 SA  families settled there in the early 20th century, to escape British rule. Although Afrikaans surnames abound, the bearers are Spanish speaking. That’s where Leon met a Van der Merwe who could not speak Afrikaans or English.

During his three years as our representative in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay  he was  busy. He ramped up the embassy’s activity level, boosting trade, cultural and sporting ties. In September 2009, bequeathed an “exceptionally modest list of contacts”, he set about remedying this, inspired by the words of his friend, businessman Philip Krawitz: “Your net worth is your network, and vice versa.”

Having witnessed him in action in Mendoza, when the Pumas made their entry into the Rugby Championship, I attest to his frenetic social pace.  He also found time to appreciate natural wonders such as Iguassu Falls, where The Mission was filmed, and the Galapagos Islands off Ecuador.

Those who think of Leon as an abrasive “fight-back” opposition leader question his diplomatic skills. He is in fact charming, and savvy enough to know when to hold back. In the book he admits to one faux pas. Hosting a dinner where guests included the British ambassador, he upset a guest by  asking: “What is it about the Malvinas that makes all Argentines so agitated? After all, you wouldn’t go and live in that windswept archipelago?”

That touches a raw nerve in the land of the gaucho and Evita, which bristles at British rule of what Margaret Thatcher called the Falklands. Politics is Leon’s game, so there are sharp comments about the powers that be in Argentina and SA. He draws comparisons and finds our discourse mild in relation to that of the Peronists, whose  venality may surpass that of our rulers.

Can a former leader of the opposition be a good ambassador? Leon thinks he did so by representing the country, not the ruling party.  He did not have to compromise his principles. And in cables to head office he was not shy to point out where SA fell short of Nelson Mandela’s pledge that human rights would guide foreign policy. That may have led to the speedy acceptance when he said he’d like to come home a year early.

The Accidental Ambassador is a worthy successor to On the Contrary.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

The job of post office and travel agent

16 Apr 2013 | Sue Grant-Marshall  | Original Publication:  BDlive

Tony Leon puts his skills as a raconteur to good use writing about his time as South Africa’s ambassador to Argentina, writes Sue Grant-Marshall

MENTION Argentina and up pops Evita, Diego Maradona, the best beef in the world and Pope Francis. Into that heady mixture we can now stir Tony Leon’s hilarious, pertinent and thoughtful insights into the life of an ambassador in a country so volatile that South Africa pales by comparison.

I am struggling to acclimatise to the sight of the former leader of the official opposition sitting on our chosen restaurant’s hard benches instead of hectoring the African National Congress from the parliamentary ones.

We exchange pleasantries about the launch of The Accidental Ambassador (Picador Africa) the night before, when a long line of guests, clutching books for signing, wound out of Hyde Park’s Exclusive Books long before the speeches began.

Yet, it was with a jaundiced approach that I opened the former ambassador’s Argentinian memoir, sighing at the prospect of some heavy reading. I needn’t have worried for, by the end of the first chapter, I was chortling at Leon’s witty repartee and fascinating stories.

One of the first people he met on taking up his post in Buenos Aires was the country’s Cardinal Jorge Mario Bergoglio, now Pope Francis. "We had a bit of a chat, nice guy," Leon says, an opinion not shared by Argentina’s President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

All ambassadors are expected to attend an annual religious ceremony held around Argentina’s April Independence Day celebrations. "But the Te Deum was never held where the president was because the cardinal was so critical of her. She made it quite clear that she would never set foot in the cardinal’s cathedral, which happens to be directly over the road from her palace."

So the ambassadors were flown at vast expense to the Argentinian taxpayer to some other spot in that huge country. But, when he became pope, "in the most Argentine way, instead of crossing the street to his cathedral, she flew all the way from Buenos Aires to Rome to attend his investiture and shake his hand. So, there you have it in a nutshell, some of the contradictions of Argentine-style politics."

You won’t find that story in his book as the pope was chosen well after he had penned his last word. But there are many others, equally amusingly told by the former Democratic Alliance leader and ambassador, who landed in the latter job after a casual conversation on the 2009 election campaign trail with President Jacob Zuma.

Leon had decided he had "done my national service" in Parliament and mentioned to Zuma that he intended leaving politics. Some time later, he found himself having a job interview with Zuma.

He wrote his book because "I needed to reflect how we actually do this job if you come from the opposition ranks — how do you remain true to yourself and to SA?"

He thinks you can do both, and hopes he has managed this. "One of the reasons I accepted Argentina was I felt I could do the job of pushing South African trade, building up our exports and pushing tourism from that country to ours, without having to violate my principles." He succeeded, for tourism grew by 120% in 2010, the year of the Fifa Soccer World Cup, and trade increased by 80%.

Leon believes that if South Africa spent more time building up its trade offices and less time sending its politicians around the world, "we would create a lot more jobs here".

But it wasn’t all lengthy asado (braais), jaunts to wealthy ranches and exquisite wine estates with the cream of Argentinian society.

He struggled to learn Spanish, couldn’t adjust to dinners that started after 10pm, disliked the hectic traffic and found the "constant feeling of crisis in Argentina quite a challenge. At least here at home, there is less crisis and I can do it in my own language."

He recounts a story of a South African fruit-juice company that couldn’t move its product out of the Argentinian customs house "because the trade minister would phone the supermarkets and ask why they were selling our juices so cheaply".

The minister’s advice was: "I suggest you get them off your shelves, and if you don’t, then we’ll find some reason to come and deal with you."

Leon recalls it being like "a Mafia shakedown, the guy looked like an extra from The Sopranos, which perhaps just reinforced the prejudice I had about the way they operated".

Leon is an excellent writer and raconteur. His description of the drowning of one of his two beloved dachshunds in a park over the road from the ambassadorial apartment, their anguish and his resolve to find another, is eloquent and heartwarming.

He and his wife drove to a breeder’s home in a dodgy suburb, "a ramshackle ruin of a structure, but inside was a dachshund lover’s heaven, with all manner, types and colours of the hound running about".

They settled for a tiny puppy with the colouring of a Nguni cow, which they dubbed Argentino Julio Leon.

During their three-year stint in Argentina, the Leons travelled extensively throughout South America, visiting Brazil, the Galapagos Islands and "the Boers at the End of the World in Patagonia".

Three ships took 800 families there at the end of the Anglo-Boer War, so it is not surprising they hardly speak Afrikaans any more and answer to names such as Juan van der Merwe.

Leon doesn’t pull his punches about an embassy today being "a sort of glorified combination of post office and travel agent".

Nor does he spare his words in describing how his minister, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, spent R235,000 for a single flight from Norway to Bulgaria, "when she refused to have her handbag searched at Oslo airport and chartered a private jet". He estimates the cost "of this one junket was equivalent to my embassy’s entire annual budget for public diplomacy projects to promote SA".

During his time there, Leon hosted, among others, author JM Coetzee, Lindiwe Sisulu, FW de Klerk, Tokyo Sexwale, the Springbok rugby team and Joost van der Westhuizen. Now in a wheelchair, Van der Westhuizen attended the book launch at Leon’s invitation.

When Leon arrived in Argentina, he was told the definition of an ambassador is "someone who thinks twice before he says nothing. But I was not that sort of ambassador. I had a few things to say and a few things that I should not have said".

And now that he is no longer an ambassador, you can read his sometimes undiplomatic but always insightful comments about his accidental job in his book. You will not be bored.

Rewrite the rules, as Thatcher and Hani did

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16 Apr 2013 | Tony Leon  | Original Publication:  BDlive
Chris Hani and Margaret Thatcher both irrevocably changed the paths of their countries, writes Tony Leon

FALL of Giants is the name of popular novelist Ken Follett’s sprawling novel set on the eve of the First World War. Although Follett is staunchly Labour, the book’s title well describes the death last week of the most consequential British prime minister since the Second World War, Margaret Thatcher. Actually, when it came to popular novelists, she much preferred Jeffrey Archer, who she hand-picked in 1985 as Conservative Party deputy chairman, approvingly describing him as an "extrovert’s extrovert".

In fact, there was much in both his novels and the rise to fame and later descent into infamy of the bumptious and talented Archer, a self-made (and somewhat self-invented), gifted striver and master storyteller, who was ultimately imprisoned for perjury, that summed up the age of Thatcher: the promotion of anti-establishment talent, the unleashing of strident populist forces and placing freewheeling capitalism at front and centre of the British story, rather than the mushy consensus that had dominated its post-Second World War history. And, of course, the excesses and controversies that accompanied the many "big bangs" Thatcher exploded across the British and world polities in her 11 years as prime minister.

This week’s Economist magazine headlined her accomplishments in just two words: "Freedom Fighter", an approving reference to her push-back against the advancement of the state and her unflinching determination to stare down and defeat those she saw leading the UK and the world down the path to perdition; or, in the title of the most famous work of her favourite intellectual, Friedrich Hayek, The Road to Serfdom.

Ironically, last week, just two days after Thatcher’s death, South Africans commemorated the 20th anniversary of the assassination of a freedom fighter of a very different stripe, Chris Hani. The different circumstances of their struggles and demises suggests why this nation seemed to unite in its tributes to Hani, while the UK remained bitterly divided about Thatcher.

Of course there is a world of difference in Thatcher dying last week at the age of 87 and as a three-term prime minister in the sumptuous splendour of the Ritz Hotel, in contrast to Hani being gunned down outside a modest East Rand suburb on Easter Saturday in 1993, at the age of 50, before even having the opportunity to ever vote in an election.

But in his death and in her life, Hani and Thatcher also changed, irrevocably, the paths of their countries: it was the shock and the elemental forces unleashed in the wake of the Hani assassination that forced the stalled constitutional negotiations in Kempton Park toward a conclusion.

Hani and his political heirs also succeeded in doing something that was, despite their recoil at the comparison, very Thatcherite: they changed the terms of the debate and recast the mould of politics, perhaps forever. Thatcher’s chief of staff, Charles Powell, observed: "I’ve always thought there was something Leninist about Mrs Thatcher." Nothing perhaps illustrated this better than the remark last week of the spokesman of South Africa’s official opposition, who described Hani as his political inspiration. Perhaps an odd statement for a party that opposes most of the Hani agenda.

But then again, perhaps not. After all, when Thatcher was asked about her legacy enduring, she pointed to Tony Blair, the hat-trick election winner for "New" Labour, whose reinvention of his party was the direct consequence of Thatcher rewriting the rules of politics, and its terms of engagement.

However, instead of energetically recasting various South African party histories into various moulds from the past, for which some of them are uncomfortable fits, they would do well to remember the wise words of Thatcher’s unlikely heir, Blair, that "we must honour the past, not live in it".

Thatcher in 1979 inherited a sclerotic, ailing UK, which was enthralled to its past and haunted by its history. As The Economist noted, "to a generation of politicians scarred by the mass unemployment of the 1930s, full employment became the overriding object of political life". Hence very often the difference between Labour and Conservative governments, after the war, was a distinction without difference. The drive toward "consensus politics" drove successive governments to intervene ever more minutely in the economy. But unemployment and inflation rose, stratospherically, as uncompetitive practices were retained. Thatcher broke the consensus and unleashed a radical agenda.

Many of South Africa’s institutions and practices, from the National Economic Development and Labour Council that cry for the reconvening of the Convention for a Democratic South Africa every time we face a crisis, are also noble relics from our predemocratic age. What worked then will not work now. South Africa has moved on from its past and it needs political imagination and mould-breakers to meet the challenges of the future.
Follow Tony Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA

Friday, April 12, 2013

THE BIG READ: Tony Leon - the unlikely diplomat

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12 Apr 2013 | TJ STRYDOM  | Original Publication:  Times Live

He met the pope before the pope was even the pope. Tony Leon drops names - quite a few of them world- famous ones - during our interview. They are all in one way or another related to his stint as South Africa's highest-ranking diplomat in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay.

While he was in office, 11 South African ministers came calling. Former president FW de Klerk popped in. Even rugby legend Joost van der Westhuizen was his guest when he promoted the new format that would broaden Tri-Nations rugby to include Argentina's Pumas.

About the expanded rugby tournament, Leon said: "It was all because I was there." He pauses, then smiles: "Just joking!"

On a more serious note, he said "We really did a lot to get that tournament started."

Humble or not, Leon is engaging. He talks to you. He puts himself in the middle of important events. He tells a good story. (My colleague who took the photo of Leon quips on the way back to the office: "It's like he's the Forrest Gump of politics - whenever something happened, he was there.")

Leon, a former leader of the DA and its precursor, is on a book tour promoting The Accidental Ambassador - From Parliament to Patagonia, his account of the three years he spent in Buenos Aires.

As we sit in a Sandton restaurant shortly before a radio interview, he recalls official events and unofficial trips to places as exotic as the Galapagos Islands.

He opens his copy of the book often, flipping through the pages, reading a passage or two, and then continuing with the story.

"I believed it would be perfectly possible, even appropriate, to advance South Africa's interests without becoming a mealy-mouthed sell-out of everything I had stood for during my political career," he says in The Accidental Ambassador.

Leon says something similar when asked how he could join a government he opposed. He distinguishes between "joining" the ANC and "serving" the country.

He accepted President Jacob Zuma's offer to become an ambassador, he contends, to put himself in South Africa's service.

Too many embassies, Leon says, are "cost centres" instead of "income centres", outposts that boost trade, investment and tourism.

Embassies can easily pay for themselves by bringing in much more than they cost. When Leon left for Buenos Aires, the trade balance was very much skewed in the Latin American country's favour. South Africa imported 10 times more from Argentina than it exported to there.

During Leon's tenure, trade grew by 80%, he said.

But it is not only about rands and pesos.

Being an ambassador is about building relationships, establishing a network of contacts and sending our minister of international relations and cooperation more information than she can get "on CNN".

These tasks, he is adamant, he performed well.

And he met Mario Jose Bergoglio, then Cardinal Archbishop of Buenos Aires, now Pope Francis I.

In the book Leon refers to the quick meeting and to Bergoglio's criticism of the politics of the feisty Argentinian president, Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner.

The president - "whose botox makes [DA leader] Helen [Zille's] look unimaginative" - would not set foot in the same place as Bergoglio, and flew Leon and a host of ambassadors "to hell and gone" for an alternative independence celebration to avoid the service in the cardinal's cathedral.

"I didn't know at the time of writing that the guy would be the pope now."

That, he says, is Argentina. A vast place of natural endowment and "endless human capital" - he lists the pope, Lionel Messi and others - but tragically in the clutches of bad policy.

"My wife, Michal, says it's like India but with 1.1billion fewer people."

Leon wrote the book to give South Africans a look at diplomatic life.

"It is meant to be accessible," he told me.

And it is full of quirky bits, like his account of coping with a steep language-learning curve.

In 2010 Leon greeted 250 prominent Argentinians aboard the South African Navy supply ship Drakensberg, saying in Spanish: "Good evening and welcome, ladies and horses."

Undeterred, he continued to try to deliver at least part of each of his public speeches in Spanish.

Leon is now retired and living in Cape Town.

His life, he laughs, is at the moment "like the foreign policy of South Africa: a bit of this . a bit of that".

Leon is on the lecture circuit. He writes a column for a newspaper. And he is involved with a private equity group that is to make an announcement soon.

During the interview he drops the biggest name in the business.

"In 1994 when I had my first meeting with Madiba - I had many meetings with him - I suggested that he appoint Zach de Beer, my predecessor as leader of the then Democratic Party, [as] an ambassador."

It came full circle a decade- and- a half later when Leon packed his bags for Buenos Aires.
Follow Tony Leon on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA