Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Brics caught with pants down as tide changes

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27 Aug 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

It is easier to use Mauritius as an African gateway than Johannesburg, writes Tony Leon
THE investor community’s love affair with developing-market economies has soured. The romance has been replaced by recrimination. Leading the charge in words, following the deeds of weakening currencies and the sell-off of bonds and equities in emerging markets, was Anders Aslund, senior fellow at the Peterson Institute for International Economics. The Peterson Institute has been rated the top in its field. And Aslund, a Swedish economist, has a penchant for bold predictions which history has often later verified. Of Russia, during the Gorbachev era, he prognosticated a future outcome of "radicalised economic reform with far-reaching democratisation". That was precisely the path the Soviet Union followed, for a while at least.

On Friday, he turned his coruscating pen — dipped in a fair amount of vitriol — to the present slowdown in the one-time surging Brics economies. Writing in the Financial Times, he said that "the Brics party is over" and suggested that their economic resurrection lay in "their ability to carry through reforms in grim times for which they lacked the courage in the boom".

Doubtless his obituary might prove to be a mite premature. Still, he offers some persuasive evidence on how the key developing economies and Goldman Sachs-selected members of this club — Brazil, Russia, India and China — essentially squandered the recent golden years of growth. Of the group’s most recent entrant, South Africa, there is no mention at all, more of which anon.

He notes that the Bric countries (and, indeed, South Africa, until fairly recently) were the beneficiaries of two of the mightiest tailwinds in recent economic history: the commodity super-cycle, the credit boom and, more latterly, the half decade of quantitative easing that flooded developing markets with cheap credit. But, he suggests, this proved to be a false dawn, as it insulated the "entrenched elites from having to make hard choices" in the more difficult areas of reform to improve the underlying state of their economies. Their lives have been too good, he suggests.

Building on the famous aphorism of Warren Buffett — "You only know who has been swimming naked when the tide goes out" — he singles out India, a one-time investor darling for exemplary condemnation.

"Its inflation is too high, its budget deficit, public spending, and current account deficit are too large. Governance is mediocre at best, reflecting substantial corruption and a poor business environment."

In all four countries, a greater role of the state is seen as a solution. But, as he points out, "the corrupt state is the problem".

One of the items of evidence Aslund cites is the 2013 World Bank Ease of Doing Business Index for 185 countries: all four Bric countries slump in the tail end of this league: China does best at a lowly 91, and the other three do much worse — Russia (112), Brazil (130) and India (132).

Although South Africa, by omission, is spared from this withering critique, many of the maladies identified as lying under the Bric surface are commonplace here.

But there is one striking distinction. South Africa far outperforms its Brics associates in the same World Bank Ease of Doing Business Index. We weigh in at 39, a drop of five places compared with our ranking in 2010, but in the stratosphere compared with the other Brics countries. As policy makers in the government wonder how to reignite our stalled growth, rising unemployment and sky-high inequality, seizing and building on this comparative advantage would be an obvious pivot to turn around our fortunes.

Apparently not. Two items of evidence in recent days suggest that the challenges of business are of little concern to the paladins of power. A leading Cape businessman complained that business is either ignored or intimidated when it airs its views. And as if to confirm this tendency, on the same day, the director-general of labour airily dismissed every single suggestion put forward by business groups for the raft of amendment bills presently being considered by Parliament.

I recently attended a meeting in Johannesburg with the CEO of a leading local company that has made great strides in extending its footprint across Africa in the energy sector and related fields. He told me his company now has its head office in Mauritius. He explained that the local environment is so burdensome, particularly in its black economic empowerment provisions, that it was far easier to use the tiny Indian Ocean island as its African gateway than Johannesburg. Apparently a major multinational will soon locate its African headquarters out of Johannesburg and place them in Nairobi.

Neither fortune nor history looks kindly at those who squander their advantages. Perhaps we should take stock of our national assets and comparative advantages and build on them and ditch or amend those that drag us down. Or do things have to worsen before we listen and reform?

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

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

When crooked politicians were not tolerated

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20 Aug 2013 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  BDlive

Although the National Party promoted an oppressive political system, it was not forgiving of its own members who looted public office for personal ends, writes Tony Leon

WHEN veteran Labour Party member of parliament Tony Benn retired from the House of Commons in 2001 after 50 years’ service, he quoted from a poem: "Though politicians dream of fame and hope to win a deathless name, Time strews upon them when they’ve gone the Poppy of oblivion." The recent death in Johannesburg of its one-time municipal boss and leader of the provincial opposition, Alf Widman, was saved from "oblivion’s Poppy" by a thoughtful obituary in the Sunday Times by Chris Barron. In it, he noted that Widman, who was later elected to Parliament, lost his seat in Hillbrow in 1987 by 87 votes.

In that election, PW Botha’s National Party (NP) juggernaut rolled over the rather mild Progressive Federal Party in a dozen of its heartland seats, with a slogan that chimed with the insecurity of its white electorate: "Reform: Yes! Surrender: No!"

But in the case of Widman’s loss, at least, it was more a result of cheating by his opponent rather than a change of heart by his voters. The NP candidate, Leon de Beer, crooked the corrupt postal vote system and got elected. But his tenure in Parliament was brief. Within two years he was convicted of 70 counts of electoral fraud and jailed, and, before he entered prison, was stripped of his seat and removed from his party caucus.

He was not alone in the rogue’s gallery of disgraced politicians from an era when the repression of apartheid was, on occasion, matched by the venality of some of its adherents. This weekend, a friend surprised guests at a dinner by opining that "we should erect statues to Hennie van der Walt and Pietie du Plessis". He was referring to two cabinet members of the same period who between them were sentenced to 19 years’ imprisonment for various counts of theft and fraud. The point my friend, himself no friend of the apartheid government, was making: their prominence in government and connections in high places did not shield them (or the crooked MP for Hillbrow) from disgrace, conviction and jail time.

The NP promoted and prosecuted a political system which oppressed and disfigured this country, and its security apparatus did far worse. But it was not so forgiving of its own members who looted public office for personal ends. And to the extent that it turned a blind eye, it did not interfere when the departments of justice and correctional services indicted and processed its members, some of them very prominent indeed.

Mention of Du Plessis’s name reminded me of a telephone call I received in mid-1994 from then-president Nelson Mandela. He told me that he was "seeking guidance and approval", as he put it, since he was "considering an early release from jail of former minister Pietie du Plessis".

I was struck by the fact that it was an African National Congress (ANC) president weighing this matter, although Du Plessis’s term in jail commenced on the watch of his own party president, FW de Klerk, who had not interfered in the matter at all. Du Plessis and Van der Walt were both in time released, the former dying a few years later.

In more recent times, few politicians either responsible or complicit for the billions pillaged from the public purse have been either prosecuted or even removed from party ranks. Tony Yengeni, one of the very select few, in August 2006 entered his brief and featherbedded jail cell spell with a hero’s send-off. The then speaker of Parliament, the very institution which he had defrauded, was conspicuously prominent in the cheering gallery. On his return from jail, Yengeni has hardly languished in either penury or obscurity. He was re-elected to the ANC executive and now heads its "political school", which, interestingly, is charged with instilling ethics in its members. He was arrested again last week, driving a Maserati, apparently in a state of intoxication. The disgraced minister of communications, Dina Pule, remains a Member of Parliament, and has yet to be prosecuted. The roll call goes on and on.

Alf Widman, who lived and died in conditions of modesty, was part of a generation of politicians who — whatever the deficiencies in their political philosophies — mostly regarded public service as a calling, not a get-rich-quick scheme. In his time, service on a city council was strictly a part-time affair and the rewards, such as they were, were generally unrelated to either the perks of office or the winnings to be had from bending the tender system.

And for those who crossed the line, such as the two NP ministers, there was always the chance, quite a good one then, of an exemplary punishment being meted out.

We should hardly mourn the loss of that political system. But in celebrating the democracy which replaced it, we should not avert our gaze from the undertow that came in its wake: the rapaciousness of public life and the lack of consequences for leading transgressors. Unaddressed, these might soon capsize the ship of state itself.

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


Tuesday, August 13, 2013

For mining’s sake, think like Peru, not like France

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13 Aug 2013 | Tony Leon  | Original Publication:  BDlive

Unlike France, with its antibusiness rhetoric, Peru prides itself on the investor certainty and protection it offers resource companies, writes Tony Leon

A YEAR ago, few South Africans had ever heard of a small town in the Platinum Belt called Marikana. But 12 months ago this Friday it became, in a hail of police bullets that killed 34 miners, a synonym at home and abroad for everything that has gone wrong in South Africa: dysfunctional labour relations, police excesses, short-term management thinking, and legislation and regulations that ignore our economic reality.

The results were enough to start a new page in a local doomsday book: R10bn in lost mine production, which cut half a percentage point off last year’s gross domestic product, three credit-rating downgrades and a resulting record current account deficit, a currency plunge and mining job losses north of 15,000 in an industry that accounts for about 60% of South Africa’s exports.

This data — collated recently by mining lawyer Peter Leon (disclosure: my brother) — does not capture the human lives and the lived reality affected by this violent eruption. Marikana was like a thermonuclear blast of such intensity that we will feel its shock waves for many years hence.

Three seemingly unrelated recent announcements caught my attention regarding the crisis on our mines. First, on Friday, Mineweb analysed the June statistics for our mining production and noted a 6.2% decrease year on year, of which decreases in platinum group metals and gold were the main contributors. But, amid a plethora of facts and explanations — not least of which are low metal prices, violent labour disputes and old mines — there was a standout surprise: Peru has just overtaken us as the fifth-biggest gold producer and, whereas back in 1970, South Africa produced 80% of the world’s gold, now we manage only about 6%. This led the journal to conclude: "How the mighty have fallen!"

Obviously there are differences between the underexploited and more accessible mining resources in South America and our own more inaccessible and ageing mines. But Peru — notwithstanding a populist history and social protests against mine operators — prides itself on the investor certainty and protection it offers resource companies.

A second announcement — appropriately made on Bastille Day — is that French President Francois Hollande is to make a state visit to South Africa in October. Doubtless his populist prescriptions, such as a proposed 75% supertax for France’s richest citizens, will find an appreciative audience among some in the corridors of local power.

But these atmospherics, in a depressed eurozone, led the Financial Times to warn France of "an antibusiness rhetoric which has created an atmosphere of mistrust between government and companies that is penalising the economy". In a recent note on the stuttering French economy and the recovering US one, the New Yorker drew attention to a difference in the governing ethos between the two nations: "Americans insist that the poor do better, the French insist that the rich do worse."

Much of this "French philosophy" underpins our mineral resource legislation and the entire paraphernalia of the government’s economic thinking. Attracting, incentivising and maintaining investor confidence is somewhere at the back of the queue, way behind racial wealth transfers, tightened state control and mandatory beneficiation. The French invented a useful word to describe all of this: dirigisme — or where the state directs, not merely regulates, all economic activity.

A benevolent and even-handed government, sitting on a resource pile, might be able to be dirigiste and bring home the bacon for its citizens. But in South Africa in 2013, the bedrock mining industry is not witnessing such benefits. Indeed, the latest round of amendments to the Mineral and Petroleum Resource Development Act suggest a further generous dose of "rent-seeking", which economist John Kay defined as "the accumulation of fortunes not by creating wealth but by the appropriation of wealth after it has already been created by other people".

But a third and more hopeful voice also made itself heard last week. Neal Froneman, CEO of Sibanye Gold, made a speech amid the ghosts of randlords past at the Rand Club. He graphically sketched what he termed the "doom and gloom" of the mining industry. But he then went on to sketch a scenario for a "post-Marikana revival package". Topping his "urgent list" was a call for leadership to provide a trade-off between popular politics and long-term national interest. From his own industry, he called for long-term thinking, including "profit-sharing which aligns workers’ interests with shareholders and containing rampant wage increases". And the state, instead of directing economic activity, needs to improve and make transparent its regulatory environment and reimagine black economic empowerment in the interests of the many, not the well-connected few.

Forward thinking like this provides a road map out of Marikana — not a cul-de-sac of diminished hope and dashed expectation.

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


Thursday, August 8, 2013

Barry Streek Memorial Lecture by Tony Leon

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07 Aug 2013 | Cape Town Press Club | Tony Leon

“The Mandela Presidency: Beginning or Ending of Free Space for South Africa? Some Lessons for Today and the Future”

 Cape Town Press Club, Kelvin Grove Club. Wednesday 7 August 2013 at 1900.

Barry Streek, whose imperishable memory we honour tonight, was foremost a man of the press, the embodiment of a passionate and proficient journalist, in whose veins the printer’s ink ran very deep indeed. For a significant part of his professional life, writing for a South African newspaper, through the thicket of curbs, bannings and regulations, was in the words of the doyen of media lawyers of the apartheid age, Kelsey Stuart, “Like walking through a minefield blindfolded.”

Barry and other colleagues of that time did more than navigate this treacherous terrain with tenacious skill and some daring; they brought to light and to the attention of an often somnambulant country and unsuspecting world, the full and unexpurgated story of the dark underbelly of the apartheid state and the forces which it unleashed to protect its privileges.

When Barry’s journalistic career was in its commencement, the legendary Joel Mervis was Editor of the Sunday Times. In his commissioned history of Times Media, and its predecessor South African Associated Newspapers (SAAN), in whose employ Barry worked for much of his professional life, Mervis wrote –

 “Even though statecraft and the craft of journalism have much in common, they are, like opposing barristers in court, basically adversaries.” [i]

Until the advent of full-blown democracy here in 1994, Barry and his like-minded colleagues in the so-called “Morning Group” of SAAN newspapers had no doubt on which side of the equation they operated.  He was an impassioned champion for the fairness, openness and equality which was the almost exact opposite of both the state and its craft until the ascent to the presidency of FW De Klerk in 1989.

 It was at a moment shortly after the election, in early September 1989, that Barry and I encountered each other for the first time, in the rabbit-warren of first floor offices at the back of the old assembly in Parliament where the parliamentary press gallery was housed.

“Have a drink”, might not be the first words he uttered to me on entering the office which he shared with Anthony Johnson, his Cape Times  journalistic Siamese twin, but it was a good approximation of our early relationship at any rate.  A stop over with Barry and his colleagues was an early and essential  rite of passage for  a freshly minted and somewhat ambitious  Member of Parliament such as I was back then; and I made many rounds to his and neighbouring offices, desperate to ensure some coverage in the next day’s  editions!  Many libations helped ease those and many subsequent encounters.

Those were remarkable and heady days indeed as the apartheid order started, both under its own hand and from the forces ranged against it, to yield to the demands of the new. The   contours of the new democracy could only be vaguely seen at the time of the dawning of the country’s new age. Even the announcement of its arrival - in perhaps the most remarkable and unexpected speech ever delivered form the podium of parliament - on 2 February 1990 - was unimaginable just weeks before its delivery.

The British historian CV Wedgwood wrote-

“History is written backward but lived forward. Those who know the end of the story can never know what it was like at the time.”

Barry and his  colleagues and I and others who entered parliament at the end of the apartheid era, and those who joined the negotiations process from exile and from prison, lived that history and helped write that story; perhaps one of the most remarkable in the annals  of the modern world.

Sadly, Barry Streek’s early death seven years ago, in July 2006, robbed him of the opportunity to see how the journey to democracy continued. Doubtless he would have strong views about our uneven progress, and some significant regressions, since then and Barry being Barry would have made them known in emphatic and vivid terms!

Barry’s passions for social justice and media freedom and indeed for the very Cape Town Press Club which honours him with this lecture tonight are well known to us all. They were his sheet anchors in the turbulent times which he ably chronicled.  Less well known to me, at any rate, was a fact gleaned recently from a colleague, that Barry was an avid and prodigious collector of maps.

This information inspired me use tonight’s lecture to contemplate a period of which Barry was a full and enthusiastic reporter - the presidency of Nelson Mandela. Did that now almost golden, and increasingly distant, chapter in our national story, provide us with a road map to guide us in building a house of durable freedom and democracy on the stony soil of our country? Has the structure which Mandela helped to build withstood the unanticipated damage and corrosion in the years which followed?

The ‘first rough drafts of history’ was the wonderful definition of journalism penned by Washington Post publisher Phil Graham. And so, the issue is:   How will future generations, as they leaf (or more accurately, Google) through the ‘first rough drafts of history’ judge the Mandela years and what has followed: will his successors be remembered for consolidating   the new democracy, or will some be remembered as having lost their way as they vandalised the structures and excavated under the foundations they were bequeathed?

Foremost, is the difficulty of separating the power of human agency from what Karl Marx termed the “motive forces of history”, and the confluence of events and the formations   which propelled them.   Undoubtedly, while Mandela was at all times the servant and symbol of the political movement he led, he also, at key moments, provided personal leadership which proved quite decisive in determining the course of this country.

On the personal, as I wrote in my political biography: “Mandela was an extraordinary phenomenon. At one level he was all too human, but at another level he inhabited a plane out of reach of most mortal politicians (in which latter category I decidedly place myself). It had been my great gift that my leadership had commenced under his presidency and had grown, not under his enormous shadow, but because of that special light which he shone on so many, including me.”[ii]

There are many members of tonight’s audience, and certainly the man whose memory we honour in this lecture, who also basked in that radiance.

Equally, Mark Twain reminded us that “Every man is a moon with a dark side that he doesn’t show anyone.”  We can also bracket Mandela with Mahatma Ghandi, as one of the select few of any age who transcend the politics of their age and rank in that rare category of   truly good and the great. But we should bear in mind George Orwell’s necessary caution and apply it to both men:

“The problem with conferring sainthood on Ghandi is that you need to rescue saints from under a pile of tissues and saccharine.”

Certainly, from my angle of both proximity to and distance from him, the Mandela presidency was an all-inclusive effort, which operated on many fronts. He led a Government of National Unity until 1996 and no sooner had its largest minority component (the National Party) left it, than he sought to include others, including my party, in it. Even when we could not agree to square that circle, of going into government but also maintaining a critical stance outside of it, Mandela continued to reach out by both gesture and intervention, to ensure that minority views were obtained and some buy-in on critical issues was achieved.

I was, accordingly, often at the receiving end of what the ghost writer of his autobiography (and, latterly, Editor of Time Magazine) Richard Stengel defined as “The full Mandela”-

“He is a power charmer –confident that he will charm you, by whatever means possible. He is attentive, courtly, winning, and to use a word he would hate, seductive. ..The charm is political as well as personal, and he regards himself not so much as the Great Communicator but as the Great Persuader…he would always rather persuade you to do something than order you to do so..(but) he will always stand up for what he believes is right with a stubbornness that is virtually unbending.”[iii]

  I used to tell my political colleagues after one or another session with the great man and a dose of “The Full Mandela” that, from an opposition perspective, it was a little like the political equivalent of the seduction scene from “Fatal Attraction”!

My first conclusion, on contrasting the Mandela presidential years and those which followed it, starts with a caution: His great personal characteristics aside, Mandela’s presidency had the advantage of occurring at a time of transcending national and international change. He was the bookend between the dying of the old order and the dawn of a new age. By the time he took office, the seventy year era of Communist rule over Eastern Europe and forty-six years of apartheid rule (and three centuries of racial domination) at home had just come to at an end. It was an era of new and brave and dramatic beginnings.

It was on his watch that the first democratic parliament convened, a new constitution was negotiated and inked, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission commenced and concluded its work and the country and its First Citizen basked in the attention and admiration of the world. Such an alignment of stars is rare in any country’s history; and,  sometimes,  it is easier to guide the ship of state through the high seas of big events than it is navigate through the  smaller, but often unseen and therefore more treacherous , currents which it fell to his successors to manoeuvre .

But, some blind spots aside, Mandela led by example in opening up the free space necessary for a democracy to take root in this country. His rare combination of personal history and enforced 27 year period of reflection and introspection perhaps uniquely equipped him for the task of being the country’s cheerleader-in-chief for democratic freedom.

Recently, Mandela’s close colleague, Pallo Jordan, reminded us that-

“During the Rivonia trial, Nelson Mandela cited the Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights and the US Bill of Rights as expressive of his vision of a free society.”[iv]

No less than his own movement’s Freedom Charter, these international testaments of freedom clearly informed and helped shape his world view and his tone of governance.

Famously, Mandela’s rich and complex background also helped inform and shape his politics and, later, his style of presidency. British statesman Denis Healey said properly-rounded leaders needed “a hinterland”, a life and philosophy beyond the narrow confines of the party diktat. Few of any country’s rulers - and certainly none here since his presidency - have enjoyed Mandela’s breadth of experiences.

Richard Stengel, again, captures the complex and contradictory forces which shaped his life and informed his politics: “His persona is a mixture of African royalty and British aristocracy. He is a Victorian gentleman in a silk dashiki.”

Politics and imprisonment might have shaped his life, but so too did his decision to escape an early arranged marriage, commence the first-black law practise in Johannesburg, and earning a living independent of the Party. He was more certifiable member of the human race than a narrowly formed political partisan.

Doubtless it was this rich personal hinterland which allowed him to call the Queen of England by her first name and to win the adulation of rural peasants in his home Province. It also informed some of his most powerful gestures and symbols.

Today, in contrast, almost our entire political leadership is drawn from the ranks of life-time politicians and trades unionists. This is not confined to the governing party: many emerging leaders on the opposition side, as well, have had no career outside of party politics.

Gestures and symbols are, incidentally, hugely important   and often underestimated in statecraft, and Mandela had an almost genius-like ability to use them to shape his nation and bind its component parts together. The Invictus moment in the 1995 Rugby World Cup, the tea party in Orania with widow of the architect of grand apartheid Dr H.F. Verwoerd, and signing into law the 1996 South African constitution at Sharpeville, site of the grim police massacre of anti-pass law protesters thirty five years before, were among the highlights of a crowded, consequential and celebrity-filled presidency.

He set the benchmark even before entering office:  You might recall a dramatic moment on the eve of South Africa’s first democratic election in 1994, during the only television debate between President FW De Klerk and Mandela. In the main it was a rancorous and point-scoring exercise, with Mandela spending much of it on the offensive. Yet toward its conclusion, Mandela reached across to De Klerk and took his hand and said of his main rival, “I am proud to hold your hand…Let us work together to end division and suspicion.” Posterity remembers that gesture better than the debate, and thus the “Rainbow Nation” was born.

Paradoxically, the most partisan of politicians, Mandela was also able to look beyond the interests of the Party and make tough calls on it, to meet the needs of the country-in-the making.

There was another critical moment just after the 1994 elections, during its chaotic counting process. You might recall the drama of unregistered ballots, pirate voting stations and other jarring irregularities.  During this long tallying process, the very future was in the balance due to extreme electoral infringements in key places. At one point, ANC senior officials met in Johannesburg and demanded the Party take action, and at least call a press conference concerning what many insiders apparently regarded as “grand theft”, which they   believed had robbed the party of victory in Kwa Zulu Natal and elsewhere. An eye witness at the meeting describes its conclusion:

“Mandela had said nothing during the discussion. Then he brought the room to a full stop. “Tell the comrades to cancel the press conference. We will not do anything to make the election illegitimate. The ANC will not say the election is not ‘free and fair.’ Prepare our people in Natal and the Western Cape to lose.’ “[v]

 He followed through on this example toward the end of his presidency. When the Truth and Reconciliation Commission prepared to publish its report in October 1998, both his predecessor and successor as President attempted legal action to either amend or suppress its findings. In contrast, Mandela said the equivalent of “publish and be damned.” As his authorised biographer, Anthony Sampson, noted: “As head of state he saw himself as having loyalties which went beyond the ANC…”[vi]

Indeed, as president and even before, Mandela ensured that his presidential office was no echo chamber reserved only for approving voices. He sought the counsel of a range of viewpoints.

While he was unyielding on his bottom lines, Mandela claimed no monopoly of wisdom on key issues and sought a range of views and voices beyond the party faithful and his inner circle.

 I recall when I first met Mandela in July 1992, at a dinner he arranged at his Houghton home, he told me and two party colleagues how his recent visit to the World Economic Forum at Davos had convinced him on his return that the ANC had to change its economic policy. As he rather pithily put it on that occasion, “Some of the biggest and most influential businessmen in the world were at Davos. They were very happy to meet me, but practically every one of them bashed me over the head because of our policy of nationalisation (of industries). So when I got back to South Africa, I got hold of our economics team, and said to them, “Boys we have got to change our policy …and they agreed.”

Compare and contrast that impulse with what prevails today in South Africa’s inner councils of power, at a time of deep economic crisis. Last week, in a somewhat gloomy, bit I fear accurate, description, the Financial Mail editorialised –

“Rightly or wrongly, the ANC struggles to bring itself to listen to any institution, organisation or individual outside its own ranks. The most important debates within the ANC happen within the ANC. In the minds of the cadres, many of whom think of themselves as part of a liberation movement rather than a political party, outside critiques are almost by definition wrong. “[vii]

Contrary voices are often irritating and discomfiting, but they are vital for obtaining society’s buy-in and correcting course when change is indicated. They are often the equivalent of the canary-in-the-coalmine who avert to the dangers which lie ahead.

At a meeting shortly after the 1994 election, Mandela told me, in private, “It is important for the opposition to hold up a mirror to the government and point out where we do things wrong.” He used almost this exact formula when he benchmarked, in public, his soon-to-be elected government’s relationship with the media. In February 1994, Mandela told the International Press Institute Congress-

“…The media are a mirror through which we see ourselves as others perceive us, warts, blemishes and all. The African National Congress has nothing to fear from criticism. I can promise you, we will not wilt under close scrutiny. It is our considered view that such criticism can only help us grow, by calling attention to our actions and omissions which do not measure up to our people’s expectations and the democratic values to which we subscribe.”[viii]

 Four years in office somewhat changed Mandela’s views, on both opposition and media scrutiny. In December 1997, at the ANC 50th Conference in Mafikeng, he severely criticised the press, non-governmental organisations, the opposition, and other elements   of civil society. He identified them   as part of some vast and ill-defined ‘counter revolutionary movement.’ Even his staunch press ally, The Guardian of London called it “a profoundly depressing assault.”[ix] I thought it marked the low -water mark of political paranoia, so distinct from his hugely buoyant presidency.

  I also believe that this Conference, far more decisively than the better reported and more dramatic gathering at Polokwane ten years later, set South Africa on the wrong course: it was here that the finishing touches were sealed on cadre deployment, the capture of the State by the Party and other elements of a determined hegemony so at odds with the constitution concluded just one-and-a-half years before.

 However intemperate Mandela’s remarks in Mafikeng, they were a far cry from the poisoned waters which now seem to separate government and the media and the opposition and civil society today. They certainly did not lead to any introduction of legislation to muzzle the media, such as the Protection of State information Bill. But perhaps it sowed the seeds for a future showdown.

In researching tonight’s lecture, I was reminded -in lighter vein - that Mandela had his own “The Spear” moment, though how we diffused it was perhaps telling.  He had an aversion to censoring anything, even pornography. In February 1998, Hustler magazine indecorously named Mandela as “Asshole of the Month.” Then deputy minister of Home Affairs, Lindiwe Sisulu, slammed the issue as ‘vile, outrageous and obscene’, and apparently considered banning it. Mandela, in sharp contrast ‘laughed the matter off’ and instead of rushing to court he said, somewhat oxymoronically, the magazine’ should use its own sense of morality and judgment’. He surprised his Director General, Jakes Gerwel, by asking impishly: “Have you seen this month’s Hustler?” [x]

 More consequentially, it was Mandela’s attitude toward the courts and his faith in the supremacy of the constitution and respect for its institutions which separated him from some of his successors.
Our current President’s own ascent to office can be, diplomatically, best described as a Houdini-like escape from the coils of court processes, rather than an embrace of them. 

In contrast to Mandela’s championing of the constitution which he signed into law, consider the recent scepticism of senior ANC executive member and Deputy Minister of Correctional Services Ngoaka Ramatlhodi. In 2011, he stated that the constitutional transition was a victory for ‘apartheid forces’ who wanted to ‘retain white domination under a black government’. This was achieved ‘by emptying the legislature and executive of real power’ and giving it to ‘the other constitutional institutions and civil society movements.’[xi] Apparently, other powerful voices in Mr Ramathlodi’s party and government share this sentiment.

We might conclude from this contrast that while the ruling party certainly celebrates Nelson Mandela and his early legacy of armed struggle, it is far more ambivalent about what we might term “Latter Mandelaism”, and his embrace of the constitution, and some of those inclusive presidential characteristics I have enumerated above.

But let me conclude with a note of hope of how the spirit of democracy, freedom and robust dialogue has actually taken root a decade and a half since Mandela left formal office and entered “ a  twilight of greatness.”

During his presidency, South Africa’s parliamentary opposition was deeply fragmented; its civil society was still finding its feet after the long dark night of apartheid and the press, whose leading editors were mostly drawn from the minority, were at some quite decisive moments, mute and offside.  The radiance of Mandela’s leadership, ironically, both warmed our hearts but sometimes blinded “some among us “(to borrow a favourite phrases of former President Mbeki) on our roles in a free society and the rules of engagement needed for democratic deepening.  In this respect, at least, there has been a sea-change today. 

In June 2013, Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron delivered an influential address at the Sunday Times Literary Awards. He eloquently signalled that in one vital respect, and despite considerable damage done, our democracy remains afloat, and in one sense is more seaworthy than in the recent past:

“Our polity is boisterous, rowdy, sometimes cacophonous and often angry. That much is to be expected. But after nearly two decades, we have far more freedom, more debate, more robust and direct engagement with each other –and certainly more practically tangible social justice than 20 years ago.”[xii]

The push back by a diverse range of civil society actors here and the delayed passage and marked improvement to the Protection of State Information Bill earlier this year is a striking, encouraging example.

Just four years before Nelson Mandela’s release walked back into freedom, another political prisoner was released from jail, the first in the Soviet Union to be freed by Mikhail Gorbachev. Natan Sharansky had also been convicted and imprisoned for High Treason. After nine years imprisonment, he went into exile in Israel and subsequently became a political leader there. In 2004, he published a powerful polemic, “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 consequence.[xiii]

For the many things that have gone right and wrong with South Africa  since our first steps toward becoming a free society back in 1994,  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. It was the light which illuminated the life and work of our late friend, Barry Streek.


[i] Joel Mervis: The Fourth Estate. Jonathan Ball. 1989. Johannesburg at p ix.
[ii] Tony Leon: On the Contrary-Leading the Opposition in a Democratic South Africa. Jonathan Ball. 2008. Johannesburg at p 498.
[iii] . Richard Stengel:” Mandela’s Way-Lessons on Life.” www.leadershiponline.co.za
[iv] Z. Pallo Jordan: “Big Bother would turn luxuriant green with envy.” Business Day. 1 August 2013.
[v] Stanley Greenberg: Dispatches from the War Room. Thomas Dunne Books. 2009. New York at p 157.
[vi] Anthony Sampson: Mandela –The Authorised Biography. Harper Press. 1999 at p 532.
[vii] “Politics the Victim of Vavi Debacle” Financial Times August 2-7 2013.
[ix] Anthony Sampson, op cit, at p 542.
[x] Anthony Sampson, op cit,  p 528.
[xi] Justice Edwin Cameron: “Constitution Holding Steady in the Storm”: Sunday Times June 30 2013.
[xii] Justice Edwin Cameron: op cit.
[xiii] Natan Sharansky: The Case for Democracy. Public Affairs.2004.New York at p 41-2.

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Great tales from Leon’s diplomatic bag

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 7 Aug 2013 |  Cyrus Smith  |  Original Publication: Cape Argus

After I reviewed Tony Leon’s excellent book On The Contrary, which received the Recht Malan Prize for the best non-fiction work in South Africa in 2009, I had hoped he would also write a book about his three-year stay as ambassador extraordinary and plenipoten- tiary in Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay. This he has now done and it should also become a best-seller.

Tony Leon is saluted by members of Argentina's navy in Buenos Aires
First of all I wish to congratulate Marko Vomberger for his cover photograph, where Leon stands with his jacket over his shoulder and appears to be ready for action and in front of a street in Buenos Aires, which was taken by Miro Schaap. The cover layout will attract anyone who gazes through a bookshop window where the book is displayed.

The problem with writing a review of his outstanding book is what to include and what to leave out, as each chapter deserves a review on its own. We are briefly informed about Leon’s meeting with President Jacob Zuma, who offered him the position as ambassador to Argentina. .


Leon then writes that anyone who complains about “African time” has obviously never lived in South America. He had to learn that South African bureaucracy was Swiss-like in comparison with Argentina’s. He puts the question to himself: “How on earth did I land up here? And is this going to be my life for the next few years?”

He adds: “The answers to these questions unfolded over the next two and a half years. They form the basis of this book and their detail surprised, delighted, infuriated, enthralled, unnerved, energised and exhausted me. I was indeed The Accidental Ambassador.” 
The heading to chapter five is How to Become an Ambassador in Three and a Half Weeks. Leon, Dr Zola Skweyiya (to be posted to London) and Ngconde Balfour (to be posted to Gaborone) were to undergo a crash course on how to become an ambassador. When Leon approached the newly appointed Minister of International Relations and Co-operation, Maite Nkoana-Mashabane, she embraced him with a big hug. He was struck by her open-faced good looks, ample proportions and refreshing candour.

When he suggested to her that their brief training seemed scant preparation to take over their embassies, she waved away his hesitation, saying that the three of them had such vast political experience that they did not need any instructions, except to learn the administrative essentials, adding that “sometimes, you will just have to follow your instincts, do the right thing and just sort out the details later”.

 Jan Mutton, the Belgian ambassador to Pretoria, advised him to throw away all training manuals and learn Spanish. Leon had thought that English was an international language and that he would get by with it in Argentina, but he soon found out that few spoke or understood English, as Spanish was their official language.

Leon explained how difficult it was for him to learn Spanish. He would learn a few introductory words and sentences, but jokes how he got into trouble on one occasion in 2010 when he had to welcome 260 top Argentinian guests on board the SA Navy supply ship the Drakensberg.

“Dangerously I abandoned my written text for one minute in order to attempt a freestyle greeting. I began in Spanish ‘Good evening and welcome, ladies and horses’. There was a collective guffaw from the audience.”

He realised that he had substituted the word caballos (horses) for the word caballeros (gentlemen).

One of the many problems he and his wife, Michal, encountered was the late hour – any time between 10pm and 11pm – at which Argentinians have their evening meal.

When he and Michal decided to eat at a restaurant they booked a table for 8pm. That meant they dined alone or, at best, in the presence of few American tourists.

One of the highlights of their stay was the 2010 Fifa World Cup, which was front and centre of their public diplomacy. Sport therefore played an important role during Leon’s stay in Argentina. He was told of an incident that happened four years before his arrival, during the Springbok rugby team’s visit to Argentina. The mighty Kobus Wiese and a few other front row forwards squeezed into one of the lifts, which promptly broke under their combined weight.

The Argentinians, during Leon’s time, took a great liking to Joost van der Westhuizen. Leon recalls that he arranged a function with guest speaker South African Rugby Legends president Gavin Varajes. He also arranged a dinner for him and the Puma legend, Hugo Poreta. He recalls that this great flyhalf was incredibly modest and gentle, but also quick-witted. Sizing up the towering Van der Westhuizen in the dining room, he observed: “In my time, scrumhalves were about half your size, but then they were only about half as good as you.”

Among the many important visitors Leon entertained during this time was JM Coetzee, who had been awarded the 2003 Nobel Prize for Literature and who twice won the Booker Prize. Leon had been informed that Coetzee was not a person who liked to speak to anyone. However, this was not the case when he and Leon met.

Leon writes that one morning he was profoundly moved to find in his inbox an e-mail of thanks from “John” stating: “I always admired you for the job you did as leader of the opposition, never (at least to an outsider’s eye) allowing yourself to be disheartened in the face of huge odds. I think you should look on that phase of your life with great pride.”

Leon has a great deal to say about Argentina’s economy. He refers to Julius Malema’s call to nationalise South Africa’s gold mines. The Argentinians nationalised mines and other institutions, leading to disaster. Their President Cristina Fernandez de Kirchner, for example, states that the story about the so-called galloping inflation rate is a fabrication of the media.

Leon, together with Richard Davies of the South African Press Association, visited the descendants of Boer families who settled 2 000km from Buenos Aires in the oil town of Comodoro Rivadavia in the province of Chubut. The Afrikaners had appealed for a teacher to teach their children Afrikaans. When Leon returned to South Africa he tried to mobilise interest in this appeal, without success. If nothing happens, Afrikaans will disappear in a few years in this small Boer outpost.

There is the eye-catching heading to chapter 29, “Don’t Mention the F-word”. It refers to the war between Argentina and Great Britain over the Falkland Islands.

One never mentions the Falkland Islands in Argentina. They call the islands the Malvinas. Leon, during a lunch, put his foot in it when he asked: “What is it about the Malvinas that makes all Argentinians so agitated? After all, you wouldn’t go and live in that windswept archipelago.”

The reply was, “How can you ask such a question, Ambassador? It is a fact that the Malvinas belong to Argentina. It has nothing to do with whether I would choose to go and live there.” It is noted that there was a winner of this war – Margaret Thatcher. Leon’s advice to head office was to remain neutral on this issue.

A handy appendix is titled Michal’s Must-See List. It is a list of important sights to see, caf├ęs, restaurants and shopping.

In his postscript on his return, Leon recalls that Pretoria in November is a riot of colour and noise – the jacaranda trees are in full flower. “Dusk envelops the city in that wonderful and lingering highveld twilight, which I had missed during my time away.”

He adds that he visited the residence of the president. A single steward ushered him into the vast sitting room.

“Within minutes of my arrival, President Zuma entered alone. He chuckled on greeting me and enveloped me in a hug. ‘Welcome back,’ he said.”

This book must become a standard handbook for any future ambassador or official posted overseas. It is also an important guide to those who intend doing business with the Argentinians or even touring that part of the world.