28 May 2014 | Martin Williams | Original Publication: The Citizen
With an abundance of material on Madiba available, it’s handy to know whether any new book about the great man offers fresh insights.
Tony Leon’s latest memoir, Opposite Mandela, does so. Leon was perfectly positioned to have a unique perspective. Not only did he become the leader of the opposition when Mandela was president, he was also MP for Houghton, where Mandela moved shortly after his release in 1990. There are other coincidences weaved into this engaging story. These include family links that connected the two to noteworthy events and personalities.
With customary chutzpah, Leon capitalised on Madiba’s presence in Houghton by delivering a chocolate cake and a hand-written invitation to attend a DA constituency report-back meeting. Although Madiba declined, he reci-procated, asking Leon “and one or two other DP chaps” around for dinner. That’s where the young MP began to learn that his host had “an almost preternatural talent for reaching out to, and charming, those outside the circle of true believers”.
All Leon’s observations about Madiba are made within the context of admiration and respect for “a leader born with a special kind of grace, who seems to transcend the politics of his age”.
Yet Leon is not shy to point out flaws. For example, he did not hold back when Mandela defended the actions of ANC members who shot and killed IFP marchers in the 1994 Shell House massacre. When the matter was raised in Parliament, Leon quoted a leaked memo showing police had been unable to investigate, as they had been denied access to the building.
Mandela later said he had personally given ANC guards the order “shoot to kill”. And he got away with it. “In this and many other judgment lapses, as I viewed them, Mandela’s Teflon coating was ultra-resilient.”
There’s also a chapter on how Leon dealt with Mandela’s invitation to join the Cabinet. Harry Oppenheimer and Bobby Godsell thought the DP should “give it a go”, but former party leaders Helen Suzman and Frederik van Zyl Slabbert advised against it.
Leon sought advice from many quarters and pondered long over the issue. With the benefit of hindsight, he says: “South Africa, today, would be less likely to have been a robust, open democracy with government held to account by an independent opposition had (Madiba’s) proposal been realised.”
Leon offers insights into other key players. During the protracted talks that preceded SA’s historic political settlement, his initial antipathy to Joe Slovo “melted as I found his sharp and cynical humour made us, across the divide of age and ideology, actually quite kindred spirits”.
Indeed, at the Hyde Park book launch last week it was pointed out that Leon was wearing red socks – a Slovo trademark. I’m not sure what we were supposed to read into that.
Leon’s clashes with Madiba’s successor, Thabo Mbeki, are legendary. However, in this volume he explains how “the Mbeki of 1994 was a much nicer person, far more approachable and accommodating”.
Throughout the book there are examples of warm, personal exchanges between Leon and Mandela. In 2002, on the veranda of Madiba’s Houghton home in front of a phalanx of reporters and photographers, the elder statesman put his arm around the shoulder of the opposition leader, declaring: “Tony Leon is a proper democrat and there should be dialogue at all levels of our country.”
Another glimpse of what we are missing.
Opposite Mandela by Tony Leon is published by Jonathan Ball. (Paperback, 243 pages, R210).