Tony Leon | 7 September 2014 | The Sunday Independent
Johannesburg - Twenty five years ago this week, on September 6, 1989, I was elected for the first time to Parliament. Admittedly, this event was a great moment to me personally and, just perhaps, to my constituents in Houghton, Johannesburg, who had entrusted their parliamentary interests to a then 32-year-old local city councillor, than to the nation.South Africa was back then a country at war with itself – and largely isolated from the world which had turned its back on the apartheid state.
|Tony Leon during his days as leader of the opposition in Parliament. Now, looking in, he warns his former party that they must take measures which will improve people s lives and life chances. Picture: Sophia Stander|
The central feature of politics then was the failure of government to set in train the basis for a negotiated resolution of democratic rights for the majority, who at the time of my election were excluded from the magic circle reserved for whites (and in lesser form for Indians and Coloureds) to freely choose their public representatives to institutions which mattered.Even the centrality of the sovereign parliament to which I had just been elected to enact meaningful legislation and process executive regulations was deeply contested, and not simply by the extra-parliamentary opposition at home, in the form of the surging United Democratic Front (UDF) and the liberation movements, principally the ANC in exile and in prison .
A previous leader of my party, Dr Van Zyl Slabbert had dramatically resigned less than four years before the hinge-of-history 1989 election declaring that the Parliament to which I had just been elected was “a hopelessly flawed and failed constitutional experiment (which) does not begin to solve the problem of political domination; in fact it compounds it”.The Democratic Party (DP), on whose ticket I had been elected, broadly agreed with this analysis but believed that the legal platforms for participation should be used to fight for change.
However, while retrospect makes the pathway forward seems obvious, there were no clear indications in September 1989 that South Africa was about to undergo the most profound change in centuries.The most important consequence of that election was the inauguration of a new state president. I arrived in Parliament directly from lecturing at the University of Witwatersrand.
The reason for the overwhelming white face of the student body was a result of government policy enforced by its conservative education minister, named FW de Klerk.Thus, when Parliament gathered for its first sitting day on February 2, 1990, to listen to President De Klerk, few on the opposition benches inside and the far mightier anti-NP forces outside, had any great expectation of change.
The major opposition in Parliament was on De Klerk’s right flank, in the form of the rejectionist Conservative Party which had in two elections eaten into the NP support base and constituted a much more significant electoral threat than the reformist DP.In one 40-minute speech, De Klerk did something which not one of his five NP predecessors had done: like them he could read the proverbial writing on the wall; unlike them he did not presume it was addressed to someone else.
De Klerk’s acceptance of change and a process of constitutional negotiations with the real leaders and movements of the majority changed this country forever and, other – doubtless unintended – results would see him removed from the presidency within four years. But he also upended the terms of trade for the opposition.By 1994, the Conservative Party, whose tactical inflexibility was entirely in keeping with its inflexible ideology, had ceased to exist in any parliamentary or political form.
And the 1994 election also saw the near-extinction of the DP which made it into the first democratic parliament only because its own proposal at the Kempton Park negotiations, that a 5 percent threshhold be reached for any party, had been rejected.The DP’s political near-death experience was a result of two related political realities: part of its existing support base reasoned that since the NP had adopted most of its programme and could, in much stronger form protect their interests, they might as well vote NP.
The other part of its base, those whose moral repugnance for apartheid had caused them to reject the NP, even in its rejuvenated form, could now vote for the clearest alternative to it, the ANC .After the 1994 election I had the task of picking up the shattered pieces of the DP when I was elected its leader, at a time when few thought there were realistic prospects for its survival. Yet within a decade, the NP would also join the elephant’s graveyard occupied by once dominant parties which could not adapt to changing circumstances.
Something very similar had happened to the once dominant United Party, which had governed South Africa for decades before 1948 and had been the party of opposition choice for whites for three decades thereafter. It had disappeared entirely by 1989.
Outside of white politics, something very similar happened later to the once hugely relevant Pan Africanist Congress and the intellectually impressive Black Consciousness Movement, both today relics of history.Fast forward to today, and the forces of opposition are at once familiar and very different. The DP’s successor, the Democratic Alliance, holds the position of official opposition.
It is an amalgam of the DP and NP and has added a slice of black voters to its traditional base. But it is neither populist nor particularly ideological. It offers to protect the constitution and does so in its parliamentary role and, increasingly, through the legal processes such as its successful endeavours to obtain the “spy tapes”.It is opposed to the ANC but has, simultaneously, adopted many of its policies in an attempt to obtain greater traction among wavering supporters of the ruling party. It is also hemmed in by demographic realities: despite having a deeper bench of viable black leaders, it remains vulnerable to siren calls that it is a “white party”.
Julius Malema, leader of the Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF) – whatever his ethical shortcomings – is uninhibited by any of these constraints. He does not have a diverse support base whose interests have to be carefully balanced. But he also has a much larger potential electoral hinterland than the current, much bigger, DA.He is, as the country and the world witnessed three weeks ago, unconstrained by the niceties of parliamentary convention. His ideology, largely borrowed from his hero, Venezuela’s late Hugo Chavez, is economically unsustainable, but has the appeal of instant gratification to the many economically dispossessed in low-growth, under- skilled and job-shedding South Africa.
Might he then be the next leader of the opposition, and how does the DA prevent itself following the road to irrelevance of so many other once dominant, now extinct, political movements in South Africa?Van Zyl Slabbert once warned that “you can’t out Mau Mau the Mau Mau”. That is the first lesson which the DA needs to adapt.
It can’t out EFF the EFF nor fight on the ground which the ANC chooses for it.Second, it needs to make its principles relevant to the realities of South Africa today. It needs to fashion its once distinctive ideology of freedom, equality of choice and opportunity – three of whose pillars neither the ANC nor EFF bother with at all – and take them into the thick of the fight now raging around this country’s future.
And these are not simply slogans. They need true believers and leaders, think tanks and measures which demonstrably will improve people’s lives and life chances.It’s not easy but it can be done. The alternative is questions around relevance which, as our history suggests, leads over time to oblivion.
* Leon is SA’s former ambassador to Argentina. He was an MP from 1989 to 2009 and leader of the Democratic Party and Democratic Alliance from 1994 to 2007.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers