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, cafés, 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.