Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Accidental Ambassador - Amazon.com Reviews

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"The Accidental Ambassador - From Parliament to Patagonia"

In April 2013, Pan Macmillan published the keenly anticipated diplomatic memoir of Tony Leon which is entitled "The Accidental Ambassador - From Parliament to Patagonia". This revealing insight into what happens behind embassy walls and how the author went from frontline opposition politics in South Africa to representing the country in three of South America's intriguing countries - Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay, is a witty and candid account of the 'secrets of the diplomatic trade' and a no-holds barred narrative of the countries in transition on both sides of the South Atlantic.

'As a fellow accidental ambassador, reading Tony Leon's adventures in the land of the original Evita and the gauchos reminded me there are reasons to be grateful we live in South Africa after all' Evita Bezuidenhout

A few Amazon.com readers shared their views online after reading the Accidental Ambassador: 

5/5 Superb, April 29, 2013
By John Steenhuisen

Tony Leon takes us through the remarkable journey his life took after deciding to leave frontline politics. This lighthearted look at diplomatic life in a corner of the globe doesn't fail to deliver some hard-hitting analysis and lessons for us in RSA.

Laced with delightful vignettes, sporting banter and behind the scenes peeks beyond the diplomatic veneer it is a delight to read. At parts funny, at parts sad the book is an absolute pleasure to read.

5/5 A wonderful read, May 26, 2013
By Louise Kremeris

From the moment I began reading 'The Accidental Ambassador', I was immediately engrossed in the narrative. I so enjoyed the careful and precise language and the dry wit that punctuated the stories. The book is an excellent balance of keen political observation, historical detail, gossip, humor and real emotion. I loved it.

5/5 A fascinating comparison of South Africa and Argentina, past and present, May 2, 2013

 As a former South African who has spent time in Argentina, I thoroughly enjoyed seeing the two countries through the former Ambassador's eyes. His descriptions paint a vivid picture of life and the issues facing Argentina, comparing and contrasting them with those facing South Africa. Leon shares his broad knowledge of the history and background of both countries in a way that helps any reader understand the current situation. I felt like an insider as he shared the unique and amazing situations only an ambassador could experience.

4/5 A nice easy read, May 20, 2013
By S J (Johannesburg, South Africa)

The book is easy to read and give a very good back ground to life in the foreign service. A good book to dip in while reading other books.

4/ 5 A good read from a frank and erudite author, May 15, 2013
By Don Lindsay

Some may love him and some may hate him but Tony Leon is a clever, insightful person who calls a fool, a fool. I personally respect and enjoy his intellect and insight. For those with an interest in South Africa and/or Argentina, this book will be appealing. It may also make an amusing read for those in the diplomatic corps.


Humble pie as Brazil and Turkey explode in riot

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25 Jun 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

The recent reversal in the flow of funds from emerging markets makes eating the unappetising ‘humble pie’ obligatory fare, writes Tony Leon

POLITICIANS, even of the detribalised sort such as I, do not enjoy eating humble pie. But recent events in Brazil and Turkey and the reversal in the flow of funds from emerging markets makes this unappetising dish obligatory fare. Living in Argentina — with frequent hops across the border to Rio de Janeiro to savour the samba beat and quaff caipirinhas, the national cocktail — was equivalent to what in the US is called "drinking the Kool-Aid". You got so intoxicated on the good news and the positive data that you averted your gaze from other inconvenient truths hiding in plain sight in front of you as well.

Until last week’s rolling riots in Rio and beyond, it was easy to be a cheerleader, as indeed I have been since my return here, for Brazil representing, in the words of analyst Nicholas Lemann, "the perfect trifecta" of high growth (unlike Europe and the US), political freedom (unlike China) and falling inequality (unlike practically everywhere).

Brazil and Turkey — another high-performing developing economy that seemed to embrace democracy — were two mascots of the new conventional wisdom: that the emerging world was "enjoying" a better crisis than the developed world.

I was not alone in my wonderment. The Wall Street Journal described the extraordinary presidency of Brazil’s Luis Inacio Lula da Silva between 2002 and 2008 as exemplifying "pragmatic politics that are at once pro-Wall Street and pro-favela". And recent metrics chimed with this assessment: last year, it ousted the UK as the world’s sixth-biggest economy and 28-million Brazilians, about 15% of its nearly 200-million population, had been lifted from poverty into the lower rungs of middle-class life. The world expressed its approval by awarding Brazil hosting rights for next year’s Soccer World Cup and the 2016 Olympics.

On a return visit in March to this hemispheric giant, my enthusiasm was tempered somewhat when sitting for several hours in Sao Paulo’s Guarulhos International Airport, which struck me as the grim aviation equivalent of Dante’s Inferno.

Then there was the small matter of trying to prepare a lecture and relying on the country’s eccentric internet connectivity, which makes Telkom’s speed and bandwidth a world-beater by comparison.

Still, I reasoned, the country was increasingly producing things the world wanted to use and consume, from Embraer jets to Havaianas slip-slops, and had in JBS the world’s largest meat producer. And the country sat on millions of hectares of soya beans and surrounded by a sea of oil.

But in the past week, the party came to an end, or a temporary stop, and the fizz went out of the caipirinhas as Brazilians took to the streets raging against Lula’s hand-picked successor, Dilma Rousseff. The precise agenda of the citizens’ anger is diffuse: it started with the price of bus tickets and has metastasised, across more than 80 cities, into a freewheeling agenda from rallying against corruption to repressive policing. Just as in the "Arab Spring", and more recently in Turkey, the protests are largely leaderless and have used the social media to galvanise numbers and spread the word.

Of course the key to understanding a central ailment in Brazil lies in the gross domestic product numbers: during its surge up the league tables of the world, Brazil was posting 7%-9% annual growth, much of it fuelled on easy credit and loose monetary policy courtesy of the US Federal Reserve. Even before Ben Bernanke announced that his foot would be taken off the pedal of quantitative easing, Brazil’s overheated economy had slowed to a crawl of about 1% growth, doubtless fuelling the discontent in the streets.

A decade ago, in the surrounds of Liberal International — a collective of global parties — I encountered a man who had one of the most difficult jobs in the world, leading a liberal movement in Russia. Grigory Yavlinsky was the appropriately gloomy and intense founder of the Yabloko party, whose political harassment by the Kremlin made a mockery of any claims his country made to being democratic. But recently he drew a distinction about his own country’s incomplete transition from communism to a more open society and the present unease and protests facing strongman Vladimir Putin: "The protests at the end of the 1980s and in the 1990s were, to put it bluntly, protests over ‘sausage’. It was a consumer revolution. Today in Russia a bourgeois revolution is beginning — for freedom, human values and respect. I have no doubt about it, ‘sausage’ is no longer an issue."

This description fits Turkey today, even better than Russia. Its middle class has risen up against Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan whose ambition, in the words of the Financial Times, "has become limitless as his tolerance of dissent was limited". South Africa sits happily on the sidelines of this ferment right now. But I won’t eat another slice of humble pie by predicting for how long.
Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Mining’s abnormal state preventing effective govt intervention

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19 Jun 2013 | Mining Weekly | Original Publication:  BDlive

JOHANNESBURG (miningweekly.com) – The abnormal current state of the South African mining sector was preventing effective government intervention, former Opposition Leader and former South African Ambassador to Argentina Tony Leon said on Wednesday.

Leon, who addressed a Front Foot 'State of the Nation' breakfast, said in response to Mining Weekly Online that President Jacob Zuma’s recent intervention in bringing stakeholders together under Deputy President Kgalema Motlanthe and relevant Cabinet Ministers would have been fine in normal circumstances.

“But we know in our reality that the situation in mining is currently completely abnormal. We’ve got wage settlements that are completely out of kilter with what the sector can bear, both in terms of productivity yields and in terms of other benchmarks.

“We’ve bought peace where we have it, and only in certain areas, at a very high cost. We now have proven that our labour relations model in terms of the Labour Relations Act, does not work, because the whole form of centralised collective bargaining doesn’t work,” Leon said.

He added that key relevant Cabinet Ministers needed to be seen to be nonpartisan, and government needed to recognise that the law-and-order mechanism had to change.

He criticised the Farlam Commission of Inquiry into the Marikana killings for taking longer than it should.

“I don’t want to anticipate what’s going to come out of the Farlam Commission of Inquiry into what has happened at Marikana, but it has taken an unbelievably long time, given that we are about to approach the anniversary of Marikana and the commission is now only expected to end in October. That’s far too long.

“But we need to know that the interventions in the future will both be more effective and less deadly than we saw at Marikana," he said.

Leon would ideally like to see greater clarity between the unions and reconsideration of the majoritarian basis on which recognition worked, with more power returned to stakeholders other than unions.

“In other words, that you have the stakeholders who aren't actually in the labour unions also getting more recognition in terms of the wage negotiations,” he said.

He did not believe any of these steps were necessarily going to happen in the run-up to the 2014 general election, owing to the ruling African National Congress (ANC) not wanting to offend trade union federation, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu).

The truth was that the National Union of Mineworkers, as one of the senior stakeholders in Cosatu, was instrumental in getting the ANC’s vote mobilised for next year’s election.

“So, a lot of what should happen won’t happen, at least until after the next election,” he added.

All that came on top of investor uncertainty created by the Mineral and Petroleum Resources Development Act (MPRDA) and the various ever-shifting codes promulgated under the MPRDA.

"Clearly, whatever its intentions, the entire paraphernalia of our mining legislation has achieved neither a conducive environment for the industry and all its stakeholders and has pushed us ever further back in the benchmarks of global mining.

"This is one element that is entirely in government's purview to rectify," he added in a note.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Doublethink one area of major growth in SA

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18 Jun 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

Accepting two contradictory beliefs simultaneously chimes with an area of economic diplomacy that manifests itself as a race to the bottom, writes Tony Leon

YOGI Berra, the famed US baseball player and manager, once quipped, "When you come to a fork in the road, take it." Last week’s commendable presidential reaffirmation of the National Development Plan (NDP) came within a day or so of confirmation that at least one of its chapters, the section on foreign policy, had been junked.

This raises the larger question of what the Cabinet was doing when it endorsed the document in August last year. Is the NDP our "socioeconomic blueprint", as President Jacob Zuma described it, providing a common road map to get the country onto the fast track by 2030, or is it simply a work in progress, where the contentious bits simply get junked according to the whims of whichever lobby group is on the rise at a particular moment?

I spent three years abroad trying to decode and implement the strategic plan and white paper of the Department of International Relations and Co-operation. Far from clarifying our role in the world, and offering tough choices, it does not admit that priorities and trade-offs are needed in the competitive world in which we operate. It simply box-ticks all the regions in the world, throws in a few anchor states in each of them and then suggests an African-biased "all of the above approach" to statecraft.

It was only on my return from foreign service, which coincided with the Cabinet endorsement of the NDP, that I read chapter seven of the plan. It provides a clarion call for South Africa to shape its foreign policy by requiring of government "a clear strategy" based on the country’s global, continental and regional situation. It also provides a frank admission that here has been a relative decline in influence of our position as "a significant presence in world affairs" since the heady days of 1994. Exactly so.

Another inconvenient truth in the chapter is the urgent need for South Africa to rationalise and streamline its 124 legations operating in 107 countries. Doubtless treading on the vested interests at play, here is what got the goat of the mandarins in Pretoria.

Canada and the UK, with economies about five and six times, respectively, larger than our own, recently announced that they would be sharing certain diplomatic missions to save costs, in a nod to austerity. British Prime Minister David Cameron has urged his country’s foreign service to put the UK ahead in "the global game". Converting embassies from cost to profit centres is one way to achieve that.

Allied to taking the fork-in-the-road approach, rather than making the tough calls, is George Orwell’s definition of "doublethink" from his dystopian novel, Nineteen Eighty-Four: "The power of holding two contradictory beliefs in one’s mind simultaneously, and accepting both of them."

Doublethink is one area of major growth activity in South Africa, and elsewhere. It also chimes with an area of economic diplomacy that manifests itself as a race to the bottom, in the form of protectionism.

We saw this on display last week with the chicken war now raging between South Africa and Argentina. On the one hand, our Department of Trade and Industry issues a stern mandate to its trade officers across the world to interdict instances of unfair tariffs being applied against our products in foreign countries. Yet, in an attempt to save the uncompetitive local poultry industry, it has slapped sky-high tariffs on imported birds from South America.

Leaving aside the mouthwatering hypocrisy of Argentina, perhaps the most import-averse country in the world, this saga represents doublethink in the extreme. On the one hand, the workers whose jobs might be saved with such a move, are also consumers. And ramping up the price of white meat by protecting local industry, simply feeds, forgive the pun, the food insecurity and price instability about which the government has expressed correct concern.

The spectre of Big Brother, more than doublethink, has also led to a global spike in sales for Nineteen Eighty-Four after the revelations from former US Central Intelligence Agency employee Edward Snowdon that the National Security Agency’s dragnet allows government access to all social media and private communications, from e-mails to Facebook. But there is an element of doublethink here as well: we want our freedom and privacy, but we also want to be free from terror attacks. Like most big questions and issues, there are no glib answers. But that’s part of the burdens of government: to navigate safely, in a principled and effective manner, between these competing impulses.

African National Congress deputy president Cyril Ramaphosa recently chided us for being "whiners and complainers". In contrast, Mervyn King, the departing governor of the Bank of England, spoke in a weekend interview of "the audacity of pessimism — only when things look bleak will people get around to doing anything". Like choosing the right fork in the road, for example.

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


Tuesday, June 11, 2013

ANC playing politics at expense of racial unity

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11 Jun 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

The ANC is happy to ditch the nonracial consensus of two decades ago as there are few votes in it for the party, writes Tony Leon

THE fading health of Nelson Mandela, the fraying of our constitutional settlement and the severe contraction of the economy, bathe the country in sombre light.

Last weekend I was interviewed for a documentary about Mandela’s meaning for the world. His close confidant, Mac Maharaj, had wisely cautioned the director to "remember that Madiba is human, not a saint". So advised, I reminisced that among the former president’s stellar achievements was his unerring ability to combine the advancement of principle with shrewd political calculation.

The much contested "rainbow nation", which Mandela’s presidency emblazoned on the country and the world, was on one level putting into presidential practice his historic speech from the criminal dock in 1964, to wit: "I have fought against white domination; I have fought against black domination…." This impulse was not admired in all quarters, but it certainly helped bind the wounds of a fractured nation.

But it was also shrewd in creating a sense of unity on a shaky foundation. Mandela hardly needed, and did not receive, many votes from minority communities, but he needed their buy-in to get the new South Africa on the road as a going economic concern and to settle the nerves of international investors, who played a big role in buying our bonds and equities.

But you could also joke with Mandela about the limitations of his mega-star appeal. In 1995, shortly before the municipal elections in Johannesburg, I visited the him in his Houghton home on some political business. He boasted that he had been canvassing for the African National Congress (ANC) in the area that morning. "I signed up over 120 members for the ANC in Houghton," he enthused. "Well, they will probably still vote for us in a few weeks’ time," I responded.

He laughed heartily and the subsequent result proved me, in this small predication, correct. But that time of national reconciliation and the easy banter that accompanied it has faded. This is reflected across the political and racial divides by the new generation of political leadership.

When Jacob Zuma was the provincial boss in KwaZulu-Natal he had his hands full in dousing the violent flames of the incipient civil war, which had nearly immolated the province. He was largely successful in that project and certainly there was no rancour displayed by him or colleagues of that time to Indians and whites. They were free to make their political choices, which they did by overwhelmingly not supporting his party.

But a different note was recently sounded by his recent successor there, ANC provincial chairman Senzo Mchunu. He recently issued a warning to the whites and Indians in his province: "(I) generally get the sense that minorities have generally abdicated their responsibility towards South Africa, being South African, towards the government and the ANC."

In a similar vein, Gauteng Premier Nomvula Mokonyane warned about the return of "pale male government". Doubtless, both will double down on racial targeting and simultaneously proclaim fealty to the constitutional principle of nonracialism.

They bring to mind the 16th century heretics, the Antinomians, of whom Geoffrey Wheatcroft wrote: "They believed that to the pure, all things are pure. If you were of the elect, the saved, you could do no wrong; you could merrily eat, drink and fornicate in the certainty of salvation." Or in our context, you can make racial threats and still proclaim nonracialism.

So the ANC is happy to ditch the nonracial consensus of two decades ago. There are few votes in it for it, and if it scares investors and job creators, well that’s politics.

The Democratic Alliance (DA) has the opposite problem: it has maxed out on minority votes and is now in anxious search of a base among the majority. I have considerable sympathy for this dilemma having had to walk the path of keeping an existing constituency and securing a new one. This probably explains why it was the DA Youth, and not the ANC Youth League, who were toyi-toying outside the Afrikaans-Protestants-only Kleinfontein community the other day. But the repudiation of this move by DA Gauteng leader John Moodey proves just how divisive this can be within the party itself. Similarly, on the Broad-Based Black Economic Empowerment Bill, the party has taken a "support with reservations" approach.

Back in the old South Africa, the United Party tried to appeal to two constituencies simultaneously, having a conservative voice for the platteland and liberal approach in urban areas, perhaps summed up by its slogan of "White rule with Justice".

An unrelenting focus on the economy and giving a substantive answer to Reserve Bank governor Gill Marcus’s extraordinary cry for help the other day, rather than racial threats or equivocations, is what’s most needed now. It will also reconcile the nation today with the legacy bequeathed by Nelson Mandela.

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

Tuesday, June 4, 2013

Dreaming of summer after ‘winter of discontent’

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04 Jun 2013 | Tony Leon  | Original Publication:  BDlive

The recent spate of gloomy economic data suggest that South Africa’s political economy is entering a ‘winter of discontent’, writes Tony Leon

WITH winter storms encasing the Western Cape in an icy grip and cold fronts moving across the country, it is tempting to suggest that, parallel to the weather, South Africa’s political economy is entering a "winter of discontent". There is plenty of gloomy supporting evidence from the economic data: according to Reuters, the beleaguered rand’s breaching of the R10 barrier against the dollar on Friday made our currency the worst-performing currency after the Venezuelan bolivar fuerte and the Syrian pound. The currencies of two failed states, one of which is in the midst of full-scale civil war, is not the sort of association or benchmark South Africa needs.

More galling, no doubt, for the Presidency is that the rand’s plunge came after a media conference by President Jacob Zuma last Thursday that was intended to reassure investors that the government had a plan to bolster economic confidence, particularly in the mining sector. "Markets defy Zuma" was the next day’s headline, proving that the political weather is often as impervious to outside intervention as the Cape storms.

It will doubtless offer scant comfort to local leadership to know that the political update of the Shakespearean-originating "winter of our discontent" arose in the UK during the 1978-79 industrial unrest. It was the coldest winter for 16 years and the trade-union-acquiescing Labour government of James Callaghan was confronted with the unravelling of its pay and wage constraints and the postwar consensus that unions, government and business could keep the peace through "consensus politics". Militant unions had other ideas, however, and the spectre created by images of striking gravediggers refusing to bury the dead and uncollected garbage spilling onto the streets would not only haunt the government, it would destroy it. Within months, Callaghan and Labour would be driven from office by a resurgent Conservative Party with Margaret Thatcher at its helm. She had very different ideas from Callaghan about the unions, the postwar consensus and how to fix the economy.

Interestingly, and of cold consolation to Zuma after his own attempt to use the presidential podium to douse the flames incinerating our economy, Callaghan, before his defeat and at the height of the crisis caused in part by his own policies, also decided on a press conference intended to reassure voters and calm the markets. He also cracked a few jokes — and was then asked about his view of the mounting chaos in the country.

Fresh from a Group of Seven retreat in the French Caribbean, he gave a complacent reply: "Please don’t run down your country by talking about mounting chaos. I do not feel that there is mounting chaos." The next day, The Sun newspaper immortalised his nonchalance in a famous headline: "Crisis? What Crisis?" Its editor was knighted after Thatcher won the election.

In fact, Zuma also sounded far less complacent last Thursday than he did recently in a Financial Times interview, in which he blamed our economic travails on outside factors and awarded himself 70% for governance. But aside from announcing a high-level ministerial intervention to settle the tumult in the mining sector, there was little of substance in his pronouncements.

Far more recently than the UK’s winter of discontent, another European voice was heard on the dilemma politicians face when it comes to prescribing the harsh medicine of unpopular economic fixes. Luxembourg Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker candidly admitted of the economic reforms required to fix the sclerotic eurozone: "We all know what to do, we just don’t know how to get re-elected after we have done it." Zuma’s government is cushioned by a far greater electoral margin than any of his European counterparts. Even on the most positive estimates of the opposition, next year’s election will not lead to a change in government and only two, at best three, provinces are going to be competitive.

Zuma and his government do not have to really announce new measures. That would be a bonus. They could start by implementing what they have already undertaken to do: implement the youth wage subsidy, declare education an essential service and stare down the tripartite alliance and Cabinet opponents of the National Development Plan. He could also reprimand his land reform minister, who announced the day after Zuma’s press conference that it was "an honour" to have South Africa’s land reform process compared to what happened in Zimbabwe.

It might also help if the minister of trade and industry took his foot off the throat of the business sector he is meant to be helping and if Communications Minister Dina Pule was relieved of her duties. Shelving plans for a new presidential jet would also assist in marrying deed to word.

The advantage of the bleakest winter is that you can dream of a mythical summer. At the very least you can, more realistically perhaps, hope for a break in the clouds
Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA