Monday, April 28, 2014

On twenty years of democracy - Tony Leon

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26 Apr 2014 | Tony Leon | Original Publication:  PoliticsWeb

Former DA leader speaks on South Africa then (under Mandela) and now (Zuma)

Address by Tony Leon at the "Twenty Years of South African Democracy" conference, St Antony's College, Oxford University, Friday, April 25 2014

Thank you for the invitation to address this important  conference which takes place between two historic milestones back home in South Africa: the death of  former  president Nelson Mandela over four months ago on 5 December 2013, and our fifth democratic  election which takes place in  less than two weeks,  on 7 May 2014.

Few free democracies present quite the paradox which today's South Africa contrasts. It is a free democracy with a black majority government, but also  one of the most racially unequal countries on the planet; the state is engulfed by mushrooming corruption which a free media vigorously reports; its multiracial elites shops in first world  palaces of consumerist bling and millions live in shacks; its ruling party is on course to a huge re-election win in a few days but has never been weaker or more divided; just since January this year there have been over 3 000 service delivery protests, many of them violent, and yet the government has delivered more than 3m homes, electrified over 50% of them and ensured 90% of them have access to piped water and 66% of home cooking is  today done with electricity.

It has structural unemployment of over 25% of the adult population and yet one-third of all South Africans depend on state grants for their income, purchased on the back of just 6m personal taxpayers.

Its private sector scores in the top percentiles of global indices, while its public sector severely underperforms to the extent that public education, on which a greater percentage of GDP is spent than any other developing economy, produces results equivalent to those achieved in Yemen.

In the well -chosen words of Bill Keller, of the New York Times: "If South Africa does not leave you full of ambivalence, you have not been paying is inspiring and it is dispiriting. "

Leadership had much to do with our relatively peaceful, indeed against the odds transition from apartheid to democracy.  That special and transcending leadership embodied in Nelson Mandela and others from that time provides some of the explanation, and its loss today is keenly felt. 

From the perspective of 2014, I still believe - perhaps more emphatically today than when I delivered it - that my tribute to Nelson Mandel when parliament took leave of him in March 1999 holds true:

I am deeply honoured that I have been able to see from these benches the ending of apartheid and the beginning of democracy under the presidency of Nelson Mandela. My respect and admiration for him is unconditional. He graces this House. He graces this country. He graces humanity.

Mandela had, famously, special relationships with a vast array of people, from the famous and powerful to the obscure. In the former category fell Queen Elizabeth II, who once said of her own self-described  annus horribilis  in 1982  that ‘distance lends enchantment'.

In contrast, the years of Mandela's presidency constituted a sort of national and personal anni mirabiles, or years of wonder. It could be said that, today, our country , viewed against the weak leadership, corruption scandals, misgovernance and deeply frayed communal relations, is enduring its own annus horribilis, or indeed has suffered a succession of them.

But, 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 book end between the dying of the old order and the dawn of a new age.

By the time he took office, the fifty-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, brave and dramatic beginnings.

It was on Mandela's watch that 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. It is equally true that sometimes it is easier to guide the ship of state through the high seas of big events than it is to navigate the shallower, but often swifter and more treacherous, currents through which it fell to his successors to manoeuvre.

But, some gaffes and missteps 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 the enforced twenty-seven-year period of reflection and introspection perhaps uniquely equipped him for the task of being the country's cheerleader-in-chief for democratic freedom.

Gestures and symbols are 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.

Paradoxically, Mandela, the most partisan of politicians, 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 a critical moment just after the 1994 elections, during its chaotic counting process. Today South Africa's first democratic election is remembered in reverential terms, even tinged with a touch of the miraculous. For those of us involved in it, and even for others who can remember its detail, it was a far more jagged affair, with its mess of unreconciled ballots, pirate voting stations and other jarring irregularities.

During the long tallying process, the very future hung in the balance due to extreme electoral infringements in key places. At one point, senior ANC 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 KwaZulu-Natal and elsewhere. An eyewitness 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.'[i]

 He followed through on this example when, towards the end of his presidency, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission prepared to publish its interim report in October 1998, and both his predecessor and successor as president attempted legal action either to amend or to 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 ...'[ii]

A different set of attitudes prevails today in South Africa's inner councils of power. A gloomy, but, I fear, accurate, description of it appeared in an editorial of the local Financial Mail in August 2013:

‘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.'[iii]

At our first meeting after the 1994 election, Mandela told me, ‘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 exactly the same formula when, in public, he benchmarked 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 can 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 those of our actions and omissions which do not measure up to our people's expectations and the democratic values to which we subscribe.'[iv]

Four years in office changed Mandela's views, both on opposition and on media scrutiny. In December 1997, at the ANC's 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'.

However intemperate those remarks, they are a far cry from the poisoned waters that seem to separate government and the media, the opposition and civil society today. They certainly did not lead to the introduction of any legislation to muzzle the media, such as South Africa was to witness in more recent times. But perhaps it sowed the seeds for a future showdown.

The years between his relinquishing office and his death were marked by tumult at home and abroad: the global financial crisis of 2007-2008 had tilted the balance of the world economy, although there were no apparent winners and an ever greater circle of losers, from southern Europe to the United States and even mighty China, whose roaring economy was starting to slow.

Nations and commodities fell in and out of favour, and in again and out again, with nervous and ever more fickle investor sentiment. South Africa was hit hard as its currency cratered, a reflection of its widening twin (trade and budget) deficits, oscillating global sentiment on emerging market economies and multiple own goals at home.

When Mandela left the presidency in 1999 the currency, the rand, traded against the US dollar in the R6.00 range; when he died in December 2013 it had fallen to around R10.69, a decline of over 40 per cent, on a measurement sometimes indicated as the ‘sovereign's share price'.

In 1998/1999, the country ranked top in Africa, at forty-seventh place, on the World Economic Forum's global competitiveness index of 148 nations; by 2013/2014 it had fallen six positions to fifty-third, now second in Africa to Mauritius.[v]

Far more precipitous - and explicable by the cascading corruption drenching the state - was South Africa's slide down the rankings in perceptions of corruption. When Mandela left office, his country was rated thirty-fourth on Transparency International's index.[vi] By the time of his death in 2013, it had fallen to seventy-second place out of 177 nations surveyed.[vii]

Mandela's presidency made little impact on the country's serious and structural unemployment crisis, a key and continuing failure of governance, and today the position has worsened, with fewer than two in five working-age adults having jobs in formal employment.[viii]

More consequentially, it was Mandela's attitude towards the courts and his faith in the supremacy of the constitution and respect for its institutions that separated him from his successors.

Indeed, President Jacob Zuma's own ascent to office can, diplomatically, be best described as a Houdini-like escape from the coils of court procedures and the multiple corruption charges he avoided before becoming president, rather than an embrace of them. In contrast to Mandela's high regard for the constitution, which he both championed and signed into law, the recent scepticism of senior ANC national executive member and Deputy Minister of Correctional Services Ngoako Ramatlhodi, provides a studied contrast.

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'.[ix] Apparently, other powerful voices in Mr Ramatlhodi's party and government share this sentiment.

We might conclude from this contrast that, while the ruling party embraces Nelson Mandela and his early legacy of struggle, revolution and sacrifice, it is far more ambivalent about what I have termed ‘latter Mandelaism', such as his respect for the restraints on unfettered state power, and many of the presidential characteristics well known to this audience.

But let me sound one note of hope on the theme of "now versus then". Between Mandela leaving office in 1999, and entering what we might call "a twilight of greatness" before his death last year, there has been, for all the collateral damage inflicted by his successors on key constitutional instruments, more of the open spirit of democracy, freedom and robust dialogue than at any other stage of our two decades of democracy.

During the Mandela 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, was at some quite decisive moments, mute and offside.

The radiance of Mandela's leadership, ironically, both warmed our hearts but also sometimes blinded ‘some among us' (to borrow a favourite phrase of former President Mbeki) to our roles and the rules of engagement needed for democratic deepening.

In this respect, at least, there has been a sea change today. Without the protection of what The Economist dubbed ‘Mandela's saintly aura',[x] both the ruling party and its leaders will be more harshly judged. Difficult for them, perhaps, but positive for the country's long-term democratic prospects.

Days after Mandela's funeral near his birthplace in Qunu in the Eastern Cape, the powerful National Union of Metalworkers of South Africa (NUMSA) trade union announced it was disaffiliating from the ruling ANC, whose factiousness was starting to resemble a circular firing squad. Doubtless it will still remain in power for some years yet, but the Madiba aura appears to be non-transferrable to his political heirs, and thus normality begins to settle on the country's politics.

In June 2013, Constitutional Court Justice Edwin Cameron delivered an influential address at the Sunday Times Literary Awards. He eloquently described how, in one vital respect, and despite the considerable damage done, the country's democracy remains afloat:

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.[xi]

The push-back by a diverse range of civil society actors and the delayed passage and marked improvement to the Protection of State Information Bill in the year of Mandela's death was a striking, encouraging example.

Just four years before Nelson Mandela's 1990 release and his walk back into freedom, another famous 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 in jail, 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 which he elaborates, with passion and clarity, the idea that freedom is rooted in the right to dissent, to walk into the town square and declare one's views without fear of consequence.[xii]

For the many things that have gone right and wrong with South Africa since our first steps under Mandela's leadership 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 both as guide and as inspiration into the future.


Last week marked the passing of the literary giant Gabriel Garcia Marquez. There is indeed more than a touch of the miracles and wonders he so brilliantly described of Latin America in the journey of our country in the South from apartheid to democracy. But like any other national or international achievement, the story needs to be renewed and refreshed, so we are not simply remembered, as a golden  historical footnote for the big thing we got right two decades ago and not for the  lesser  missteps since then.  We need to re-imagine the future and not succumb to the sclerosis of power, corruption and complacency.

My concluding wish is that, in our own narrative going forward, we never lose the vision of our own "shining city on a hill" that we set for ourselves and the world.

With purposeful renewal comes the reality of hope.  As Marquez expressed it: "It is not true that people stop perusing dreams because they grow old. They grow old because they stop perusing dreams."

Tony Leon served as Member of Parliament from 1989 to 2009; Leader of the Democratic Alliance (Official Opposition from 1994 to 2007); South African Ambassador to Argentina from 20009 to 2012 and has just published his latest book "Opposite Mandela-Encounters with South Africa's Icon" (Jonathan Ball. 2014)


[i] Stanley Greenberg, Dispatches from the War Room, p15.

[ii] Anthony Sampson, Mandela - The Authorised Biography, p532.

[iii] ‘Politics the Victim of Vavi Debacle', Financial Times, 2-7 August 2013.

[iv] Nelson Mandela, ‘Nelson Mandela's Address to the International Press Institute Congress', 14 February 1994,

[v] ‘How the world rates South Africa',



[viii] 'A Giant Passes', The Economist.

[ix] Justice Edwin Cameron, ‘Constitution Holding Steady in the Storm', Sunday Times, 30 June 2013.

[x] ‘A Giant Passes', The Economist.

[xi] Justice Edwin Cameron, ‘Constitution Holding Steady in the Storm'.

[xii] Natan Sharansky, The Case for Democracy - The Power of Freedom to Overcome Tyranny & Terror, pp41-42. 


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