Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Symbolism as the old order yields to the new

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30 Jul 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

Don’t underestimate the power of the symbol in the Gauteng leadership race, writes Tony Leon

MARK Twain’s old line, "Every man is a moon with a dark side that he doesn’t show anyone," does not apply much these days. Politicians, from David Cameron to Barack Obama, and business moguls from Rupert Murdoch to Alan Sugar, blog and tweet semiprivate thoughts into the public domain.

Locally, the weekend media was awash with the excruciating SMS trail that beleaguered Congress of South African Trade Unions boss Zwelinzima Vavi released to prove that a political plot and an extortion racket on the back of an extramarital affair, and not rape, was the issue between himself and an employee.

Still, the good, old-fashioned photograph and TV moment has a way of freeze-framing and symbolising moments when the old order yields to the new. Some are conscious and calculating, others are offhand and unintended; sometimes the motive is unknown. A friend of mine, James Bradley, has written a powerful book, Flags of Our Fathers, which Clint Eastwood made into an equally compelling movie, about the background to one of the most symbolic and photographed moments in the Second World War. It provides the back story to his father and five other Marines who raised the flag after the Battle of Iwo Jima, which was the turning point in the Pacific War.

Then there was the moment in December 1970, when West German chancellor Willy Brandt dropped to his knees on a state visit to Poland, at the commemorative site to the Jewish victims of the Warsaw Ghetto uprising of 1943. One commentator noted: "Done in the names of Germans past and present, the silent act was arguably more powerful than any words Brandt might have uttered."

At home, on the eve of the most important and symbolic election in our history, in April 1994, a TV debate was held between the two main contenders, Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk. Few who watched the debate recall any detail of what was, in the main, an unmemorable and fairly rancorous exchange between the leaders of two poles of our history and power. But TV, and the press photographers, captured for posterity the most significant and enduring moment of that evening. That scene is well described by a key member of Mandela’s election team: "Then Mandela suddenly shifted gears and changed the perception that everyone would take away from the debate. After attacking De Klerk one more time, he paused for effect: "But we are saying let us work together for reconciliation and nation-building," saying each word ever so slowly. Then he reached out his hand. "I am proud to hold your hand…. Let us work together to end division and suspicion." Thus was born the rainbow presidency of our most consequential president.

The author of that account was president Bill Clinton’s pollster, Stanley Greenberg, who was hired by the African National Congress (ANC) as a key strategist for its 1994 and 1999 election campaigns. He also takes the credit for helping devise the party’s inclusive and vote-winning slogan, "A better life for all". At the weekend came the announcement that he has defected from the ANC to the Democratic Alliance (DA). He is charged with assisting the party’s effort to wrest Gauteng from the grip of the ruling party.

Greenberg’s sophisticated and pioneering use of polling has a mixed record of success: but he is not simply an expensive number cruncher. As his biography, Dispatches from the War Room, reveals, he is an exponent of the art and meaning of the symbol in the rhythm of politics and elections. He describes the moment in the 1992 US presidential debate, when incumbent president George Bush was caught on camera "looking at his watch", signalling subconsciously that time was running out on his presidency.

Quite what Greenberg, or any Gauteng voter, will make of the weekend spread of premier Nomvula Mokonyane, posing proudly with her R10,000 LK Bennett shoes and matching handbag at the opening of a luxury store in Hyde Park, can only be imagined. I vaguely recall the parliamentary debate in 1998 that set up the National Empowerment Fund, which thoughtfully provided the soft loan of R34.1m to set up the emporium where the premier made her purchases. I don’t remember that among its purposes was to enable bling shoppers to "be able to spend on the designer garments we love without having to fly out of the country", to quote an enthusiastic shopper.

Mokonyane appeared unfazed by any negative image associations, announcing that "shoes and bags are part of my therapy" — a sort of Marie Antoinette meets Imelda Marcos takeaway moment.

Mokonyane’s opposite number on the DA benches is Jack Bloom, whom history will not record as a "fashionista". He prefers to tweet photographs of himself in a shack, where he sleeps one night a month in a different location. A symbolic, rather than a substantive, gesture, no doubt. But, then again, don’t underestimate the power of the symbol.

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

Tuesday, July 23, 2013

Transformation debate inhabits parallel universes

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23 Jul 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

Ludwig Wittgenstein’s take on the parallel universes we sometimes inhabit applies in spades to the vexed debate on transformation in South Africa, writes Tony Leon

DON’T hold your breath as Palestinian and Israeli negotiators prepare to hold their first direct talks in three years in Washington this week. More than 20 years ago, in From Beirut to Jerusalem, Thomas Friedman dissected the logic, or lack of it, in the endless cycle of confrontation and fitful interludes of negotiation in the Middle East. Recounting an anecdote used by Austrian-born philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, Friedman observed: "If you ask a man how much is two plus two and he tells you five, that is a mistake. But if you ask a man how much is two plus two and he tells you 97, that is no longer a mistake. The man you are talking with is operating with a wholly different logic from your own."

Far closer to home, Wittgenstein’s take on the parallel universes we sometimes inhabit applies in spades to the vexed debate on transformation in South Africa.

Chief Justice Mogoeng Mogoeng entered the ring recently in a speech to the lobby group Advocates for Transformation. In its own way and style, the speech was extraordinary. Mogoeng did not content himself to note that there was a lively debate about the selection methods used by the Judicial Service Commission (JSC) in nominations for judicial office or in the briefing patterns of attorneys in selecting counsel to appear before the court over which he presides.

He went much further than that. On one count, his speech contains no fewer than 16 references to unnamed "personalities and nongovernmental organisations … involved with an illegitimate neopolitical campaign to have certain people appointed" to the bench. He claims this is "a disguised protection of white male privilege".

In suggesting a conspiracy is at work from a shadowy, unnamed "grouping of (old order) key operators", who in Mogoeng’s opinion are posing as "agents for the enforcement of constitutional compliance when they are a change-resistant force", Mogoeng crosses several red lines.

He alludes, without elaboration, to a meeting he attended in London, where apparently "toxic inaccuracies" about our judicial selection methods were aired. Perhaps that is the trigger that caused his outrage. However, to then impugn the motives of the many critics of the JSC’s selection methods moves from the realm of sober defence into the far more dangerous territory of conspiracy-theorising and constructing a rigged trial, on flimsy evidence, to hang his detractors out to dry.

A study in contrast to the inflamed remarks of Judge Mogoeng was a speech delivered a few days earlier by his Constitutional Court colleague, Judge Edwin Cameron. He did not excoriate the critics of the constitution or those he termed "constitutional sceptics" of different ideological hues. Instead, he thanked them for their "important warnings" and then elegantly addressed their concerns and rebutted certain of their presumptions.

However, in his preparatory remarks, Cameron noted that "our polity is boisterous, rowdy, sometimes cacophonous and often angry". This statement is unarguably correct, but did not seem to apply to the responses to Mogoeng’s speech, or the lack of them.

For strangely enough, despite the importance of Mogoeng’s speech, the response to it has been extremely muted.

The FW de Klerk Centre for Constitutional Rights noted its "deep concern" about its contents and suggested that Mogoeng had come perilously close to violating his oath of office, which obliges him "to administer justice to all persons alike, without fear, favour or prejudice in accordance with the constitution and the law". It suggested, further, that Mogoeng should "take the greatest care" not to become embroiled in disputes that might come before the courts.

But other than this statement and a comment by Inkatha Freedom Party warhorse Koos van der Merwe, a member of the JSC who suggested Mogoeng’s remarks were close to "hate speech", there has been little public debate.

Advocate Geoff Budlender, for example, who roasted me last year for drawing attention to the South African Communist Party’s claims about the political affiliations of late chief justice Arthur Chaskalson, has kept silent about the pronouncements of the incumbent. So, too, has the independent bar and the host of eminent advocates passed over for preferment by the JSC.

Everyone had a choice in how to take on apartheid, which Mogoeng claims opponents of the JSC are determined to revive. Budlender, and other candidates overlooked for judicial office, such as Clive Plasket, Jeremy Gauntlett, Halton Cheadle and Willem van der Linde, were in the trenches of the struggle. Mogoeng, by contrast, was a prosecutor in Bophuthatswana. By casting the debate in a racial mode, Mogoeng obviates the question of individual choice and reduces it to one about race. Perhaps in warning about the danger of apartheid returning, he was indeed correct.

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

The Two South Africas

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23 Jul 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  Politicsweb

Address by Ambassador Tony Leon, Council of KwaZulu Natal Jewry Annual Meeting, Durban, July 23 2013

 "The False Twilight of the Two South Africas"

President, Vice President, Office Bearers of the Council of Kwa Zulu Natal Jewry.

Good evening and thank you for inviting my wife Michal and I to share this evening with you.

I am particularly pleased to have the opportunity of presenting my remarks in my home town and at a venue, the Jewish Club, which so framed my childhood and early political career. It was here that I used to play tennis on a Sunday afternoon back as a schoolboy in the 1960's, and it was also here shortly after my election as Leader of the Democratic Party in 1994 that I used to address our members at conferences and in 1996, where we held our eve of election rally for the Durban municipal elections back in June 1996. So the Jewish Club has been a still and enduring centre in a very turbulent and fast moving world, and in my own personal and political journey.

On the subject of this club and this community, just last week I sent a packing case of old press cuttings and speeches to Institute of National Contemporary History at the University of Free State, where my political papers are archived. I happened to open one of the albums from 1990, and came across the following invitation card:

Durban Women's Zionist League Invites you to the 56th Annual General Meeting.

Guest Speaker: Mr Tony Leon MP for Houghton

Subject: "Is There a Role for Jews in South Africa?"

Durban Jewish Club, Wednesday 21 February 1990 at 9.30 am.

I must have answered the question posed in the affirmative, for here, twenty three plus year later, we still are and I am still the guest speaker at the same venue to the same community!

You might recall, through the mists of time, what was going on back then and there in February 1990. My address to the Durban Women's Zionist League occurred just three weeks after then President FW De Klerk detonated his speech of thermo-nuclear intensity in parliament on an unsuspecting political landscape to an unbelieving world, which had long since written off the prospects of a negotiated, peaceful and democratic settlement being possible in apartheid South Africa. As a consequence of President De Klerk turning his back on 350 years of South Africa's history, just 10 days before my lesser speech at the Durban Jewish Club, Nelson Mandela walked out of the Victor Verster Prison as a free man for the first time in 27 years. Those were exciting but uncertain days indeed as we faced history-in-the-making, with no certainty as to how it would unfold and where it would leave the South African way of live.

I was curious, reading through the same album, to see what outcome I predicted back then for this and the larger South African community, as I, a backbench MP then commencing the first of what would be twenty years in Parliament, threw my Sangoma bones and donned the robes of Madame Rose peering into my crystal ball of South Africa's future. Political predictions are always a hazardous business, and most do not read so well later on. As Samuel Goldwyn memorably said -

Always avoid making predictions, most of all about the future.

The same album did however contain a short report of my Durban speech in the Cape Argus of 21 February 1990, under the headline -

Genie Out of the Bottle for Good, says Leon. An extract from it reads:

President De Klerk's reform initiatives would unleash their own momentum and timetables for change, which would probably consign other grand plans and timetables to oblivion in the next few months. In these circumstances it was the duty of a white politician to tell the truth that sooner rather than later South Africa was going to be governed by a government in which the majority of participants were black..."

In that, I suppose safe and perhaps inevitable, prediction I was correct, and the rest, as they say, is history, and has been our lived reality since April 1994.

But it was not always such a certainty that we would be gathered here, in peaceful circumstances, although doubtless in fewer numbers than back then, some twenty three years later.

A few years ago, the late Israeli historian and journalist, Amos Elon, published a book of magnificent and tragic history- "The Pity of it All: A History of the Jews in Germany 1743- 1933". You will note the period the book covers, from the entry of the first Jews, under extreme sufferance and prejudice into Berlin, through centuries of persecution into a golden age where Jewish life, letters and civilisation flourished in post Bismarkian Germany until the ascent of Hitler in January 1933, where the book, and effectively two hundred years of Jewish communal life, ends.

This book is unusual because it deals not with the unique evil of the holocaust, but with the land, language and historical tides which shaped, and ultimately, destroyed arguably the greatest of all European Jewish communities. Elon notes, in his introduction, -

Some claim to have discerned an inexorable pattern in German history preordained from Luther's days to culminate in the Nazi Holocaust. According to this theory, German Jews were doomed from the outset, their fate as immutable as a law of nature. Such absolute certainties have eluded me. I have found only a series of ups and downs and a succession of unforeseeable contingencies, none of which seem to have been inevitable. Alongside the Germany of anti-Semitism there was a Germany of enlightened liberalism, humane concern, civilised rule of law, good government, social security, and thriving social democracy. Even Hitler's rise to power in January 1933 was not the result of electoral success (the Nazi's share of the vote had seriously declined in the Fall of 1932). Rather, Hitler's triumph was the product of backstage machinations by conservative politicians and industrialists who overcame the hesitations of a senile president by convincing him (and themselves) that they were "hiring" Hitler to restore order and curb the trade unions.

Hindsight is not necessarily the best guide to understanding what really happened. The past is often distorted by hindsight as it is clarified by it...Fritz Stein the foremost expert on the subject of the assimilated Jews of Germany, has argued that the history of assimilated Jews of Germany was much more than the history of tragedy; it was also for a long time the story of an extraordinary success: "We must understand the triumphs in order to understand the tragedy." We must see the German Jews in the context of their time and, at the very least, appreciate their authenticity, the way they saw themselves and others, often with reason. For long periods, they had cause to believe in their ultimate integration, as did most Jews in Western Europe, in the United States and even in czarist Russia. It was touch and go almost to the end."

I am not attempting, obviously, to compare the fate or fortune of this community, in early 21st century Durban, South Africa to the circumstances of the Jewish community in Germany of eighty years ago and before. However, there are some useful parameters which Amos Elon does provide particularly when he refers to "a series of ups and downs and a succession of unforeseeable contingencies, none of which seem to have been inevitable."

The same frame, in my view, provides a useful lens through which to view our own "ups and downs" of two past two decades, and more pertinently posit some thoughts on our future. In both looking back and casting forward, we can agree, with respect to our own country, that Amos Elon's conclusion of the triumphant and then tragic history of Jews in Germany that there is no "inexorable pattern" of events and "no absolute certainties" and "no inevitable contingencies."

Shortly after my speech here in Durban back in 1990, I encountered an impressive journalist based in Johannesburg, who was the bureau chief of the New York Times. Bill Keller was to be an eye witness and chronicler for that mighty newspaper of South Africa's transition years from apartheid to democracy, and all the epochal events between those two book ends of our national story. After leaving South Africa he went on to become editor in chief of that global shaper of opinion. Recently, in May 2013, he revisited South Africa, through the pages of the New York Review of Books. This was his take on current events here-

"If South Africa does not leave you full of ambivalence you have not been paying attention. It is a country where the ruling alliance includes the Communist Party, but the real economic power is capitalist; where corruption is rampant but a vigorous press reports it; where the constitutional court legalised gay marriage and lesbians are gang raped; where the (shopping) malls are populated by a multiracial consumer class, and millions live in shacks. It is inspiring and dispiriting."

Locally, and in similar vein, at the recent (June 2013) Alan Paton Literary Awards ceremony, eminent Constitutional Court Justice, Edwin Cameron, eloquently described the duality of South Africa today:

We are now nearly twenty years into our constitutional democracy. Much has been achieved -perhaps more than those of us who tend to worry realise.

Almost all violent crime is down. Compared with 1994 the murder rate has halved. The government's housing programme has put many millions of South Africans in their own homes. In 1994, just more than half of households had electricity; now 85% do. In 1994, just more than a third of six-year old children were in school; now 85% are.

The average black family income has increased by about a third. And, through the system of social grants totalling about R120-bn every year, the very poorest in our country are afforded some elements of a dignified material existence and some access to a measure of social power.

Most importantly, these material gains have been achieved in a functioning democracy.

Our polity is boisterous, rowdy, sometimes cacophonous and often angry. That much is to be expected. But after more than two decades, we have more freedom, more debate, more robust and direct engagement with each other -and certainly more social justice than 20 years ago.

But after listing these not inconsiderable achievements, the learned Judge goes on to note that "all is not well". In this regards he cites the evidence which will be well known to members of this audience tonight and to many outside the walls of this hall: a political debate that is "divisive to the point of annihilation"; the prevalence of a "race rhetoric that often substitutes for performance". Gross inequality, largely racially structured persists two decades on and in other areas, everything from schooling to basic services evinces an "institutional decay and infrastructural disintegration that have reached dismaying proportions."

Unsurprisingly, last year saw the highest number of service-delivery protests, and nearly nine out of ten of them were violent. More and more municipalities and national departments fail to meet the basic auditing requirements.

He concludes this list of lamentable failures and shortcomings with this warning:

Not unconnected with the accounting chaos, the tide of corruption washes higher and higher. It threatens to engulf us. The shameless looting of our public assets by many politicians and government officials is a direct threat to our democracy and all we hope to achieve in it.

To many, the culture of high minded civic aspiration that characterised our struggle for racial justice and our transition to democracy seems distinctly frayed, if not in tatters.

What are we to make of these essentially two South Africas, identified by an eminent foreign journalist and a distinguished local jurist? In truth, we live in both of them and there is enough evidence to point to our country either becoming a fast tracked success story of the future or a failing state, remembered for the big things it got right two decades ago, but for the many things which have gone wrong since then. Perhaps the truth lies in both directions, a sort of "schizophrenic republic" (as James Baldwin dubbed the USA) with islands of success and achievement afloat in a sea of sleaze and dysfunctionality.

Late last year, Michal and I returned from three years abroad as South African Ambassador to Argentina and surrounding countries. The advantage of my appointment as President Zuma's emissary abroad was that it allowed us, to look at South Africa from a distance and to swop my previous job of selling the opposition to South Africans for the task of selling South Africa to the South Americans. "Distance", as Queen Elizabeth once observed, "lends enchantment." I sincerely believe that we never sold out on any core principles, but do believe that our service proves that your party identity is irrelevant when it comes to serving your country.

I have just written a book The Accidental Ambassador -From Parliament to Patagonia- which chronicles our adventures in the land of the Gaucho and Evita, a country of even more extreme contradictions than South Africa. Just one example of this, which I detail in the book, is the presence in Buenos Aires of one of the largest and certainly most thriving Jewish communities in the world, numbering some 175 000, which after 1945 had to co-exist with a host of high-end Nazi war criminals, from Joseph Mengele (who was never apprehended) to Adolf Eichmann who famously was.

Aside from observing the similarities and differences between two societies, separated by their turbulent histories, the South Atlantic Ocean and the Spanish language, the most striking takeaway feature of Argentina is the most important, baleful lesson it offers us here at home: You cannot live in the past. Argentina in the 1930's was one of the ten largest economies in the world, where the expression "as rich as an Argentine" echoed across the grand salons and estates of Europe, most of whose countries were considerably poorer and certainly less democratic than this famed home of endless Pampas, whose grasslands produced most of the beef and much of the cereal for the world back then.

Today, Argentina is in free-fall. Its economy is considerably smaller than South Africa's, and it is by any measure far worse governed, less democratic than we are; it is also the world's poster boy for spectacular economic folly. In my book, I identify the fault line which runs through Argentine politics. I called my chapter on it, "Vote for A Better Yesterday" -an accurate and sad diagnosis for a country which still adjudicates political decision making through the lens and memory of President Juan Domingo Peron, who died in 1974, and his second wife, Evita, who died in 1952! Living on past glories relieves you of having to making the tough choices going forward. It might help win elections but, as Argentina's case proves, it beggars the future.

What suggestions can I then make about our own situation here in South Africa and ensure we do not be remembered for the big things which we got right twenty or more years ago and also for the considerable failures which we have witnessed since the golden years of the Mandela presidency? Will we continue to make down payments on the past or will we make a pact for the future?

If you go back to the list enumerated by Justice Cameron, you will see that many, although certainly not all, of our post -1994 achievements have happened in arenas outside the ambit of the state or government. Although the government has in fact delivered many services and entitlements to the poorest and most marginalised, it has failed in other key areas of state performance, from providing certainty to the investor community and so creating conditions for sustainable growth and employment, to achieving good and balanced labour relations and basic, never mind good, maths and science education to the next generation.

It is easy, but in my opinion, wrong to see in this state-failure the failure of our country. I am indebted to my 26-year old Israeli-South African stepson, Etai, a South African citizen by choice rather than birth, for this observation.

Indeed, the sun may have set on many of South Africa's historical accomplishments - achieving a democracy on the stony soil of racial conflict and giving the world the example of a rainbow nation - but in some ways this is a false twilight. Left often to our our own devices, we discover that in the process our own devices are still considerable.

Just look at the performance and benchmarking of our private sector, which despite rather than because of government interference, achieves some of the top positions on global surveys for its regulation, efficiencies and performance. Just look at the international achievements of Durban born entrepreneurs such as Stephen Saad and Martin Moshal to mention two high achievers in the hyper competitive world markets in which their businesses excel and operate. Think of how our positioning on the southern tip of the African continent, the world's fastest growing economic region is a net plus today, in terms of teeming future markets; whereas when I grew up here the same continent was a byword for conflict and disease and poverty.

But to live in South Africa today requires us to be in South Africa, not just physically, but mentally and spiritually and politically. Too often, particularly in minority communities, there is a tendency to be a bystander and not an "upstander" in charting the country's progress. It is a case of politics and civil engagement being "their" responsibility and not "our" concern or obligation. And so because some of us adopt what I call "the half a loaf" attitude of living in the country but not in a civic sense being engaged with it, our commitment -no less than our expectations - is half baked.

Frankly, as an English-speaking Jewish South African from Durban I was, objectively, triply disqualified from assuming the leadership of a major political party twenty or so years ago. In the days of white politics it was assumed that only an Afrikaner could lead a political movement, and since 1994 it was assumed that only a black person could lead an opposition party. I do not claim any exceptionalism for myself, except to note that if I had concentrated on my adjectival limitations, instead of my" South Africaness", I would never have entered, let alone got going, in the arduous arena of South African politics.

Let me conclude with another Durban figure of current eminence. Nearly ten years ago, in December 2004 I addressed a meeting of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies in Cape Town. The atmosphere there was certainly a lot cooler (or hotter, I suppose) than it is here tonight. For I went there to criticise the Board, not to praise it. An account of this meeting appears in the excellent work, "The Jews of South Africa" by Professors Milton Shain and Richard Mendelsohn (Jonathan Ball. 2008).

I explicitly said that the Board back then was practicing what I termed "the creping politics of influence" with the then government. It went cap-in-hand to seek favours, and I asked the question: "It is unclear why the leaders of the Jewish community should feel that they have to "ask favours" form anyone at all ... the security and entitlements of this community are not a privilege granted by the government or the ruling party or (any department of state). These are constitutional rights."

My rather robust views did not find favour back then with this community's leadership, who preferred a path of quiet and non-confrontational engagement with the authorities.

I was therefore genuinely pleased when Mary Kluk of Durban assumed, in more recent times, the leadership of the Board and began to advance the interests of the community in a more forthright fashion. The B.D.S ("Boycott, Disinvest and Sanction") campaign against Israel, for example, called for a variety of responses.

Mary, and her colleagues, did not simply "go along to get along". They confronted the one-eyed and one-sided attitude and standpoint of the SA Government with a variety of responses -public, legal and, where necessary, confrontational. That is why the "labelling" of products from the Occupied Territories by the DTI has been pursued by the Board in the public arena in a more effective fashion than we witnessed in the past. May this be the hallmark of community leadership going forward.

In 2004, Natan Sharansky , the former Soviet dissident and political prisoner, who became a political leader in Israel, published a major work on freedom entitled "The Case for Democracy."  In the book he elaborates, with passion and clarity, that freedom is rooted in the right to dissent, to walk into the town square and declare one's views without fear of punishment or reprisal.

For the many things that have gone right and wrong with South Africa since our first steps toward becoming a free society back in 1990, Sharansky's universal observation that "the democracy which sometimes dislikes us is a much safer place than the dictatorship which loves us" must serve as our guide into the future.. We must use that "safe place" to stand up for the values which matter and the causes which endure to this community and, beyond it, for the interests of all freedom-loving South Africans.
Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA

Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Tale of elephants, big roosters and swatted flies

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16 Jul 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

Animals inspire much symbolism and allegorical reflection in the world of the political economy, writes Tony Leon

WHY do animals inspire so much symbolism and allegorical reflection in the world of the political economy — from the bulls and bears of the bourse to the dead snake description by President Jacob Zuma of his predecessor?

Perhaps, in modern times, it can be dated to about 1945, when George Orwell’s Animal Farm, arguably the greatest political allegory ever written, was first published.

Some political parties, such as the US Republicans and Democrats, with an elephant and donkey respectively, even adopt animals as their mascots. The local Inkatha Freedom Party’s rebranding exercise some time ago, with a trio of elephants, met with less electoral success than the US adoption of the pachyderm.

Across the border, the ageing rooster symbol of Zanu (PF), will undoubtedly, along with its superannuated sole owner, Robert Mugabe, be returned to its ruling coop in a few weeks’ time. However, hereby hangs a cautionary tale dating back more than 30 years, when Jimmy Carter was still in the White House and Mugabe was still welcome in it. In 1980, Mugabe, then in his first year in office, demonstrated the risk of choosing an animal as a political symbol. In his memoir on diplomatic service, Over Here, ambassador Ray Seitz, who was present at the meeting, recounts: "I recall standing in the East Room of the White House during President Carter’s administration when President Robert Mugabe explained the significance of the rooster as Zanu’s emblem. ‘All my success’, he announced, ‘is because of my big cock.’ The room was quiet."

A panel debate in Sandton last week, in which I participated, dubbed "The Insiders", was convened to share some thoughts on the perennial question of South Africa’s future. One of the hot topics was the issue of "what happens when (Nelson) Mandela goes?" Given the severity of the former president’s health and his imminent 95th birthday, it is a delicate but understandable question. I reminded the audience that Mandela has enjoyed a 13-year, mostly golden "twilight of greatness" since he left elected office in 1999. Our future trajectory since then has been propelled by forces and people outside of his control, and so we would continue.

But I knew there was a subtext to the question. In this regard, I was assisted in answering it, by one attribute I found to be essential in my political years, a so-called elephantine memory. Thus, I dredged from the recesses of dimly remembered battles past an incident that occurred in November 1997. Recounting it at least provided the audience with the reassurance that this was hardly a new issue, even if the facts around it were far from reassuring.

It related to an African National Congress Cape Town metropolitan councillor who was caught driving dangerously, and severely inebriated by two city traffic policemen. Using an analogy from lower down the food chain than the mighty elephant or even the more humble rooster, he belligerently told his interdictors that "when Mandela dies we will kill you whites like flies". I did suggest to the audience that this sentiment was probably on the extreme fringe of political opinion and action, but it was the sort of subconscious fear that animated a lot of the saloon and dining-room chatter on the topic.

However, I was irritated that I could not remember the miscreant councillor’s name, and therefore had no idea whether his utterance had elevated his career or consigned him to the political oblivion where such 21-carat racist fermenters of violent hate speech should be consigned.

Happily, in the intervening 13 years since the incident, Google has entered our lives and a quick search revealed the name of Mzukizi Gaba as the drunken councillor, who was subsequently convicted for drunken driving and sentenced to a hefty fine and a suspended jail sentence. The same search also saw his name and his fly-swatting quote pop up in justification for the headline of a "South Africa Project", safely based in Louisiana, US, which urges its readers to "Wake Up or Die White Man".

My internet-surfing skills were not, however, equal to the task of determining with definitive precision what precisely had happened to Gaba. Thus, I consulted Gareth van Onselen, whose epic forensic skills enlighten readers of this newspaper. He responded that Gaba is employed as "director of social crime prevention" in the Western Cape government.

Leaving aside the irony of the position he now holds, I rather gasped at the thought. The drunken councillor of 15 years ago is now presumably a sober public servant reconciled to an administration headed by a white woman. It seems Mandela’s message of reconciliation was more enduring than the bloodcurdling threats of its naysayers, including this one. Or a case, from the allegorical kingdom, of lions lying down with lambs.
Leon is the author of The Accidental Ambassador (Pan Macmillan). Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA OR on Facebook: facebook.com/TonyLeonSA

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Better to back the mentally unstable in a crisis

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09 Jul 2013 | Tony Leon  | Original Publication:  BDlive

A controversial new bestseller suggests that, in times of crisis, the world is better served by leaders with psychiatric problems, writes Tony Leon

IN A conversation with a South African political leader about the prospects of a late entrant to the overcrowded room housing our opposition parties, I volunteered this: "Of course, it helps to be delusional to lead an opposition party."

My only partly flippant remark was informed by personal experience. Little did I know that a controversial bestseller by Nassir Ghaemi, director of the Mood Disorders Program at Tufts Medical Centre in Boston, had been written on the subject of why, in times of crisis, the world is better served, in both politics and business, by leaders with psychiatric problems.

Starved as we have been about the real state of the physical health of Nelson Mandela, I settled down to read about the mental hygiene of leaders further afield. Undoubtedly it will have some resonance here too. Ghaemi’s intriguing work, A First-Rate Madness, provides an original account of leadership under stress. Relying on recorded and speculative accounts of world leaders, from Winston Churchill to US Civil War heroes Abraham Lincoln and William Sherman, through to more modern icons, such as former US presidents JF Kennedy and Bill Clinton and, at the opposite end of the moral universe, Adolf Hitler, Ghaemi posits an interesting conclusion: "The best crisis leaders are either mentally ill or mentally abnormal; the worst crisis leaders are mentally healthy." The author does not have delusional behaviour in mind, but rather mood disorders such as manic depression, or bipolar disorder. As few local leaders own up to physical, never mind mental, ailments, it is interesting to read of one of the few global leaders who was untroubled by such candour.

Churchill freely wrote and spoke of his "black dog" of severe depression, which he kept at bay, throughout his life, in part with the copious consumption of alcohol and, from the 1950s at least, with medically prescribed amphetamines.

Ghaemi contrasts the mentally complex Churchill with his sane yet ineffectual predecessor, Neville Chamberlain. He quotes the British psychiatrist Anthony Storr: "In 1940, when all the odds were against Britain, a leader of sober judgment might well have concluded that (the UK) was finished. In 1940, any political leader might have tried to rally Britain with brave words, although his heart was full of despair. But only a man who had known and faced such despair within himself could carry conviction." While Ghaemi believes most leaders are mentally healthy, he posits that depression makes leaders more realistic and empathetic and mania makes them more creative and resilient, hence the thesis that mental normalcy in times of crisis can be an "impediment".

There was some criticism of the book for "shoehorning" the evidence to fit an "overly bold thesis", and for the brazen speculation in cases, such as Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, whom he cites as "the book ends of depressive activism". But even one of the critics, Christopher Caldwell, suggests the most disturbing and difficult to debunk aspect of the study is the fact that "the important countries of the West are now in the hands of the most untortured bunch of leaders in living memory": from "no drama Obama", as confidants call the US president, to "sunny side up" David Cameron and uber-normal and ultra-cautious German Chancellor Angela Merkel. Perhaps their policy caution and incremental leadership styles could do with some manic thrust? Or perhaps, in the complexity and gridlock of modern politics, it would make little difference.

Unfortunately, as it is a potentially richer field of inquiry, the world of business features in the book only with the rather singular cable-news pioneer and, in the end, unsuccessful media tycoon, Ted Turner. But since his ex-wife, Jane Fonda, wrote a tell-all book about her frantic and unsettled life with the self-confessed occasional lithium-user, there is some evidence that the "manic creativity" allowed Turner to start a new 24-hour TV news channel in 1980 in the face of the most fearsome odds. No doubt hyperthymic personalities — high energy, elevated libido, workaholism, ambitious risk-taking, etc. — are hell to live with, but they drive successful enterprises. Given the recessionary and miserable times we find ourselves in, where often-timid bean counters bestride corporate giants, perhaps we should require a mental health check along with other elements of boardroom disclosure. Although, if Ghaemi is correct, you will be inclined to favour the more mentally abnormal types to steer a company through difficult seas.

He suggests, for example, that when the economy is strong, corporate types "who makes the trains run on time" are fine, but when the economy is in crisis, you should go for "the crisis leader".

Often the peacetime success — in business or politics — is a failure in times of war. That’s something to think about before you make your next board appointment, or cast your vote in the next election.

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


Monday, July 8, 2013

Ray Hartley Reviews The Accidental Ambassador by Tony Leon

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07 Jul 2013 | Ray Hartley | Original Publication:  Sunday Times Lifestyle Magazine

A stint in Argentina gave the former opposition leader a fresh appreciation of South Africa, writes Ray Hartley

PICTURE a classroom somewhere in the bowels of the Department of International Relations and Co-operation in Pretoria. Seated at the desks are three soon-to-be ambassadors, Tony Leon, Zola Skweyiya and Ngconde Balfour.

They are being prepared for their new missions in Argentina, London and Botswana, respectively. Tony Leon, by his account – and it is the only account – is taking it all rather seriously. Zola Skweyiya admits that he is doing it out of political duty rather than desire, and Ngconde Balfour is frequently absent and wont to moan that he is being taught things he already knows.

The classes are Leon’s introduction to his new life as a representative of a government that he has criticised as corrupt, inefficient and incompetent in his years on the opposition benches.

After leaving parliament, Leon was pleased to lose his political straitjacket.

“I will certainly not miss the often dreary non-debates about non-issues which, over the past decade, often passed as the staple of parliamentary engagement. Nor will I mourn, too deeply, the dark arts of political in-fighting and intrigue with which political leadership is associated,” he wrote in the Sunday Times in 2009.
The course and a rapid introduction to Spanish behind him, he leaves South Africa for Buenos Aires to begin his new life as ambassador.

On his return, Leon is a changed man. He has not, he is quick to say, abandoned any of his principles. But he grudgingly concedes that he sees South African politics in a different light. His experiences while in Argentina have made him think again.

No longer “leader of the opposition”, he finds to his surprise that new doors are open to him. Leon has entered a new life in a realm somewhere above the grind of politics where there is more hope and possibility.

The then defence minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, whom he has always viewed as a preening “princess”, alights from the steps of the plane in Argentina to give him a warm hug. Leon observes that she is, it turns out, effective and functional as she deals with the signing of some or other much-delayed treaty that Leon had badgered her to attend to.

In Argentina’s president, Cristina Kirchner, he sees what a real princess can do when given the levers of power. Benefiting from several plastic surgeries, Kirchner sports “Angelina Jolie lips”. He makes this observation as he hands her his official accreditation.

Princess privilege, in fact, knows no bounds. Leon discovers Kirchner’s government has banned the Big Mac from the McDonalds menu in Argentina, apparently because of The Economist‘s Big Mac Index, which it uses to calculate the true values of foreign currencies. The magazine retaliates by refusing to carry any of Argentina’s official statistics. It is more than an amusing sideshow, Leon points out. By manipulating the inflation figure, Kirchner is able to cheat buyers of inflation-linked bonds out of money.

Members of the embassy staff, by contrast, are not princesses. They are professional to a fault, Leon discovers. Dirco itself runs a very tight ship and is proud of its clean status with the auditor-general, going so far as to warn Leon not to tarnish its reputation by spending improperly.

The secretary-general of the National Union of Mineworkers, Frans Baleni, visits. Leon notes that South Africa’s laws, which protect labour, pale when compared to those of Argentina, where it is all but impossible to fire someone. Baleni shows big eyes at the thought.

In South Africa, Julius Malema advocates nationalisation in a populist assault on the investment community. But Malema is disciplined, sidelined and fired. Nationalisation is rejected by the ANC’s party conference.

In Argentina, the pouting president nationalises the country’s leading oil company by fiat. Newspapers, which are critical of her administration, are victimised. The tax collection agency is used to target dissenters.

Leon’s own eyes widen at everyday occurrences, like purchasing a pastry, which is a nightmare. There is a queue for the pastry and then a second queue to pay for it as an old shopkeeper thumbs his way through an order book in which each and every sale is recorded. Everything starts late. Meals frequently take place in the early hours of the morning, leading to unproductive mornings.

On tour with The Accidental Ambassador, his book on his experiences, he is back home and lighter and freer than when he left. There are no queues at the shops in Joburg’s Hyde Park shopping centre. A book club hosts him; he once again mentions Kirchner’s Angelina Jolie lips and can’t resist a swipe at his successor, Helen Zille, pointing out that Botox is fashionable in the Democratic Alliance these days.

He is at pains to point out that he remains somewhere in the DA firmament, but there is just a hint of bitterness. He appears slighted that he is not recognised for having created the platform for the party’s growth.

The irony – and in South Africa there is always irony – is that Leon and Zille have, sometime in the last five years, quietly passed each other like ships in the night. Zille has gone in the opposite direction – from independent journalist and NGO leader to party partisan. Leon, on the other hand, has had a relatively easy walk from politics to freedom. – @hartleyr

The Accidental Ambassador is published by Pan Macmillan

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