Ray Harley | 25 August 2014 | Books Live
Opposite Mandela, Tony Leon (Jonathan Ball Publishers)
By Ray Hartley for the Sunday Times
This book represents another step in Tony Leon’s transformation from party partisan to dignified national eminence.
The first step was captured in his book Accidental Ambassador, about his time as Jacob Zuma’s man in Argentina. For the first time, Leon found himself representing the nation, and not a political party, and it was an adjustment he found surprisingly easy to make. When he returned to the country to launch his book, he had mellowed.
Now he has mellowed some more. Opposite Mandela goes back to the uneasy time he spent as leader of the opposition in a Parliament dominated by a man who had for all intents and purposes been canonized for his role in the transition to democracy.
When I meet Leon in the foyer of the Hyatt Hotel in Rosebank, Johannesburg, he has a ready anecdote to illustrate his new position above the buzz of party politics.
“Lindiwe Mazibuko, Helen Zille and Mmusi Maimane all attended my book launch in Cape Town,” he says. Mazibuko had resigned from the DA to take up a Harvard scholarship amidst talk that she was to be replaced as parliamentary leader by Maimane. Leon apparently offered all sides refuge from a party where the air was thick with intrigue and hurt.
But he can’t resist getting a mild dig in. “I would have just wished Lindiwe well and moved on,” he says of Zille’s decision to address her party caucus with a list of Mazibuko’s weaknesses.
Leon expresses relief that he was a leader “in a pre-Twitter age”, sparing him Zille’s sometimes ill-considered 140-character responses to some or other baiting on the social network.
“I often felt deeply wronged,” he says. But he had senior party leaders who talked him down before he took the fight to the streets (or, in Zille’s case, the tweets).
In Mandela, Leon found his toughest challenge. “He was the fiercest of ANC partisans and I don’t think any organisation came close to eclipsing it. On the other hand, he genuinely had strong democratic impulses. Mandela was a leader. He was quite prepared to go against the grain,” he says.
Leon lists the events that illustrate this: The decision to begin negotiations with the apartheid government; the decision to wear the Springbok jersey at the 1995 World Cup; His reconciliatory response to the Chris Hani assassination; and his decision to abandon nationalization.
It was, he says a different time. “When Mandela was president, the ANC was just starting out in government and not as surefooted as now. There were titans in the world then – Donny Gordon, Harry Oppenheimer, Anton Rupert. The business community was thought to be a very important stakeholder.”
The DA, which then had the reputation as the party with the ear of business, punched above its paltry 1,7 percent of the 1994 vote. It was, he says, “a small party with all the disadvantages of a large party”.
By the time Mandela’s term of office ended, this had all changed and Leon was the de facto leader of the opposition as the National Party began to disintegrate, caught between its role in the government of national unity and its place on the opposition benches.
The result was that Leon found himself courted by Mandela, who kept in close contact and even once offered him a cabinet position. There are few who would have turned down such an offer from the uber statesman, but Leon said no.
Far from breaking his relationship with Mandela, this had the effect of strengthening it. Mandela knew he was tempting Leon to abandon his principles in exchange for the proximity to power and when Leon turned it down, Mandela respected him more for his stance.
Leon and Mandela shared, it turned out, the desire to take the road less travelled. “Maybe constancy is for the dull,” he says.
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