BY ALEXANDER MATTHEWS
Tony Leon was leader of the Democratic Alliance (and its predecessor party, the Democratic Party) for 13 years, overseeing its growth into South Africa’s second largest political party. He served as South African ambassador to Argentina, Paraguay and Uruguay from 2009 to 2012; today he is a columnist, speaker and businessman. His new book, Opposite Mandela, is a fascinating account of his relationship with Nelson Mandela, exploring South Africa’s fraught transition from apartheid to democracy and his role in the parliamentary opposition during Mandela’s presidency.
What moment during Mandela’s presidency most embodied his remarkable leadership?
There were many which the book reflects upon, from his decisions to respect court judgments which went against him (perhaps, most notably, the rugby case of Louis Luyt) and his embracing style of inclusive leadership. Most famously, there was his “Invictus” role in the 1995 Rugby World Cup about which John Carlin wrote his absorbing book, Playing the Enemy. Then, perhaps less obviously, there were his efforts to get buy-ins for his policies or strategies. This ranged from his need to consult all role-players at certain moments whom he strictly speaking did not have to consult at all – for example, adjourning early from the state dinner he held for President Francois Mitterand in June 1994 to make phone calls to the top local business leaders about whom he was to appoint as his new minister of finance. My book elaborates on some of these – both the well-known moments to ones not yet in the public domain.
You clearly hold great respect Mandela, but, unlike others, recognised that he was a man and not a saint. At what point during his presidency do you feel he was at his most human?
I would think his excruciating testimony in his divorce case with Winnie Mandela revealed him at his most human and vulnerable. And I also have a chapter on the blowback from the Shell House Massacre where my constant probing of the matter infuriated President Mandela and I got to see a less noticed side of his character –anger and scorn. Happily, most of our interactions were far more positive. But this incident and others I recount help to paint Mandela in the round as it were.
What insights from the early years of the new South Africa can we use today?
For me the takeaway from the Mandela years which applies here and now and going forward is that you can disagree on some pretty fundamental stuff and still maintain an excellent rapport and relationship. Furthermore as I recount – and as many biographers of Mandela have noted – at certain critical moments Mandela believed that there were higher responsibilities than simply advancing the interests of the ANC, notwithstanding his intense attachment to his movement.
You met Mandela on many an occasion. What was your most unforgettable encounter?
Many of my Mandela encounters were unforgettable; some were more routine and even banal. Perhaps the most unforgettable was his eve-of-operation visit to my hospital ward in Johannesburg back in December 1998, which is where the book commences.
Opposite Mandela artfully combines personal recollections with an exploration of the broader politics of the day. When writing the book, how much did you rely on memory, and what ancillary research was done?
I did keep a diary in which I jotted down the most consequential and early encounters with Mandela. Back in 2008, I also published my political autobiography, On the Contrary, which I liberally consulted in writing this book, although that covered my entire political career and not just the Mandela years. I also found some of the published biographies on Mandela, notably Anthony Sampson’s authorized work and Martin Meredith’s unauthorized one useful to get the timeline and major incidents right. I also had the benefit of concluding my book just as John Carlin published his homage, Knowing Mandela, which was also of help. Ultimately, though, I decided to frame my book around certain of my encounters which I hope illustrate aspects of his leadership based on first hand observation, Mandela’s own autobiography, Long Walk to Freedom, was less useful because it ends in 1994 when my book more or less commences.
Mandela offered you a ministerial post in his cabinet. What do you think the implications would have been for yourself and for your party had you decided to take this up?
There would be at least two implications: first I would have retired by now with a larger pension and, second, I am not at all sure that the Democratic Alliance would command the heights of national opposition politics and Western Cape politics as it does today. Whatever I missed out on personally by declining that offer must be weighed against the cost of accepting it, which would have meant, I think, the death of independent opposition as delivered by the DA today.
What was your greatest disappointment about the Mandela years, and your greatest joy?
On the disappointing side – I suppose the day he announced that he would not serve a second term as president. I do think ranging from the disastrous and destructive HIV/Aids regime inflicted on South Africa by Thabo Mbeki to the marginalisation of contrary views which became the unfortunate hallmarks of the years which followed might well have been avoided had Mandela served a second term. He also could have struck a greater blow against the culture of corruption which began on his watch. On the joyous side, being in the same political arena as Mandela was a very special privilege, one which became apparent more acutely after he had left.
What was the hardest thing about writing this book?
The hardest thing about writing the book, other than the writing process itself, was what to leave out of it. My first book was a doorstopper at over 770 pages. My next effort on my diplomatic career in Argentina (The Accidental Ambassador) was far slimmer at around 250 pages and therefore more accessible and readable for everyone, not just political wonks. For this current book I firmly set out (and hopefully delivered) a “less is more” book. But that made the decisions on what to omit more difficult.
What do you believe was the DP’s greatest achievement during the transition years and Mandela’s presidency?
Proving that a very small party of just seven MPs could make the running as an opposition force, which the following election affirmed in its result.
What is Madiba’s greatest legacy?
The Mandela legacy is not really reducible to just words and phrases. He was a unique sort of leader and, as I mention in my conclusion, we will never see his like here again. That means, on the positive side that our politics has normalised and the need for heroic figures has lessened. But in so many ways, he led by example and attitude and that is the best leadership legacy to leave behind.