AUCKLAND PARK – Madiba called him Mickey Mouse, and he called the iconic man ‘Goofy.’ Politicians, Tony Leon says, aren’t always mature.
Kirsten van Jaarsveld | 21 August 2014 12:00 | Northcliff Melville Times
If you think of the name Tony Leon you might think of Helen Zille’s predecessor – the man who led the Democratic Alliance from 1999 to 2002. You might think of the South African ambassador to Argentina. And you might think of the man who stood opposite Nelson Mandela during his time as president, as the leader of the opposition.
You’d be right on all counts.
Leon was at the University of Johannesburg to discuss his book Opposite Mandela: Encounters with South Africa’s icon on 19 August. What, Leon asked, made this book different from the legions of books about the great man?“No one has written a book about Mandela, viewing him from the opposite side,” he explained.
“I had perhaps the most difficult job in the world, leading a party in opposition to Saint Madiba.”
An example of the man’s greatness, Leon said, happened during the elections in 1994.“The reality on that day was that our freedom didn’t seem assured at all,” he said.
“There were bombs at the Johannesburg airport – then called Jan Smuts – and in downtown Johannesburg. The elections were marred by political violence and a break-down in the counting system. The outcome of the elections in Natal were on a knife’s edge, and so Mandela went to Natal to cast his ballot there at the grand age of 68. Political violence was the worst in that province.“There were serious allegations of ballot tampering there, and the ANC (African National Congress) were convinced it was being robbed of a famous victory. The party called a meeting at Luthuli House, and insisted that a press conference should be called to tell the world of the injustice in the elections. Mandela was silent throughout the meeting. Then suddenly he spoke. He said: ‘We will say nothing that declares this election void. We will say this election is free and fair. Prepare our people in Natal to lose’. He realised sometimes that there were moments and acts that were more crucial than the interests of the party – and often put the country ahead of the party.”
Mandela, Leon said, was a combination of three people – the extraordinary man who put national interests before the regime; the humble man who took Hendrik Verwoerd’s wife Betsie for coffee and also a ruthless and shrewd politician.“Mandela enjoyed discourse, he liked partaking in the Parliamentary Punch and Judy Show,” Leon said.
“He was so embracing and so inclusive, but he froze you out if you crossed certain lines. To run a political organisation you have to be able to bring out the knife and wheel it. He did that.”
Leon said that Madiba was mightily irritated when he criticised his administration, regardless of his embracing nature. “One day in Parliament he suddenly said, ‘This DP (Democratic Party), they’re just a Mickey Mouse organisation’.”Leon returned the slur. “Well if that is so Mr President, you lead a Goofy government.”
A few weeks later Leon found himself at Milpark Hospital about to undergo coronary bypass surgery and there was a knock at the door. A famous voice said, ‘Hallo Mickey Mouse, this is Goofy.’ It was Mandela.“The operation was very successful, speeded on by the extraordinary embrace of Nelson Mandela,” Leon said, smiling.
“We should look upon him and learn from the examples that he has left behind. He may very well have been the last of the great men.”