Book Review: Tony Leon on life opposing Mandela (with video)

Tony Leon is a fearsome intellect, a patriotic citizen and a fiesty ex-politician. He’s also one of the best possible interviewees – informed, entertaining and open. Since leaving politics he’s been writing a great deal. His third book, Opposite Mandela, is a gem. It takes us into a world only insiders really know, sharing previously undisclosed or long forgotten facts that are sure to rebase many opinions. Just like a good autobiography should. I struggled with Leon’s second book on his Ambassadorship in Argentina. After enjoying this one so much, am determined to pull it out the bookshelf again. Our interview touches on some of the more interesting aspects of the book – like Mandela’s offer of a cabinet post and the roots of the apparent endemic corruption in SA – but there’s so much more we couldn’t get into during our allotted time on CNBC Africa’s Power Lunch. For more you’ll need to buy the book. I recommend you do. – AH  


ALEC HOGG: ‘Opposite Mandela’ is a book of unique insights into an unexplored aspect of the Presidency and leadership of Nelson Mandela. Joining us is the author, Tony Leon.  Going back into those years, the strife, the struggles, the excitement, and the interesting things you’ve put into this book of yours… What motivated you to now chronicle the Mandela years?

TONY LEON: There are no shortage of books on Mandela. His secretary’s about to bring one out, his jailer brought one out, his confidants have brought them out, the authorised biography, the unauthorised biography. But no one other than FW. de Klerk – whose book ends in 1996 – had looked at Mandela through the lens of being in opposition to him. I thought that this was a necessary and an underexplored aspect of both the phenomenon of Mandela’s leadership and what it was like to experience it (as we say, up close and personal), both in an affirming way – and sometimes I do point out here – in a hostile way because Mandela was a very rounded person.

He wasn’t a saint. He wasn’t a genius. He was a brilliant leader, but he was also a very, very engaged partisan ANC politician.

What I tried to show was in the critical moments he could put the country above Party. But sometimes the Party was everything. This book, based on my real-time experiences and accounts with him, tries to put that side of the picture forward. I hope to give a more rounded view really, of what, as JM Coetzee said, is probably the last of the great leaders in the world, never mind in this country.

ALEC HOGG: You start off almost hero-worshipping him – as did the rest of us – but as one goes through the book you realise, as a reader, that this was a man, not a God. This was someone who had made a few missteps along the way and in fact, the conclusion that I came to from reading your story was that some of the seeds of the problems South Africa is dealing with right now, specifically corruption and cadre deployment, could have been stamped out – could have been addressed by Mandela, but weren’t.

TONY LEON: Yes, that is correct. In fact, there are three chapters here – I started with one and unfortunately, it got to three – are what I call ‘the blind spots of the Mandela era’. There were far more golden moments than blind spots, just to give it perspective. That’s why we remember quite appropriately, Mandela so well and so fondly. The point, which I make in the book, is that Mandela, uniquely, had the moral authority and the stature to stamp down on certain things. At some critical moments when the corruption scandals started on his watch – the Sarafina 2 saga with Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma, the Sol Kerzner bribe situation with Stella Sigcau, and the Transkei Gaming Licences, which led to the expulsion of Bantu Holomisa rather than any actual acknowledgement that the ANC had acted incorrectly in that matter.

Alternatively, some of the leading personalities whom, to his credit, Bantu Holomisa – at the cost of his own very high position in the ANC – exposed, and was cast into the outer darkness.

Ironically, he only resurrected toward the end of Mandela’s life when he was brought back by the family to an honoured place at the funeral. Then there was a third element, which was very under-reported at the time. That was the December 1997 Mahikeng Conference of the ANC, where Mandela made a four-and-a-half hour speech – I kid you not – which people say ‘oh, it was written by Thabo Mbeki with second re-drafts by Joel Netshitenzhe.’ The truth is Mandela delivered it as the outgoing President of the ANC.

In it he lambasted civil society, the media, and all opposition parties as being part of some counter-revolutionary movement, and green-lighted what we know today to be cadre deployment of ANC officials everywhere across society, in business and elsewhere.

Some of the problems that we experience today and some of the challenges that you so eloquently identify on your various platforms (eg as impeding economic growth and market economics taking off here, started then. That’s not to say that Mandela wasn’t having to balance a whole range of contradictions. Somewhere in this book is a quote from that marvellous poem by Walt Whitman, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large. I contain multitudes”. Mandela was a multi-dimensional person. He wasn’t one thing or the other. He was several things. When, towards the end of his life people said ‘was he a Communist or was he this?’ Bill Keller of the New York Times, very perceptively wrote ‘it didn’t really matter because he was an adaptive politician’. He didn’t govern as a Communist and he didn’t run a Communist presidency. He didn’t bequeath to South Africa a Communist Constitution. I think that’s so true as well, and I hope in my own contribution to the history of our recent times, that I’ve tried to reflect on that complexity, but in an interesting and hopefully human way as well.

GUGULETHU MFUPHI:  Alec also mentioned that you touched on the people who surrounded Mandela at the time. One such individual we spoke to earlier this week was Ketso Gordhan, the current Chief Executive of PPC.

TONY LEON: He was really essential to the whole ANC’s electoral strategy. He was their Campaign Chief in 1994. Incidentally, the ANC got the same percentage under Mandela as the got under Zuma two weeks ago, so some things don’t change. Of course, Ketso Gordhan (and I mention it in the book) was also part of what you might call Mandela’s economic kitchen cabinet. He took advice and the other guy of course, was Tito Mboweni who did me the honour of launching this book last night in Sandton. There were some really engaged people around Mandela who themselves, didn’t come from a business background but today, are very involved in business. He really had a sensitivity to the needs of our market’s economy, as of course, did Mandela.

For all his revolutionary background I do recount how, when Derek Keys resigned quite suddenly as the Minister of Finance, Mandela left a dinner early to go and phone the four business leaders of South Africa…Harry Oppenheimer, Anton Rupert, Marinus Daling and Donny Gordon at that time.

In those days, you could probably make four phone calls and cover the table because he set enormous store by getting the buy-in not just of his Party, but of his advisors and of people way outside of the Mandela circle whom he believed were necessary to move South Africa forward. An example of that, is those very significant business leaders of the 1990’s.

ALEC HOGG: It’s a lovely book. ‘Great’ is difficult to say, but for people who’ve lived through it, who tried to get a balanced perspective of it, there are so many of those little insights as you’ve now shared with us. The one that we all forget was that Mandela was very much an inclusive politician. He wanted you to join the Cabinet.


ALEC HOGG: Looking back, might that not have been a smart thing to have done?

TONY LEON: Well, that was a really difficult decision to make because it came from Mandela – and in the book, the chapter is called ‘The Temptation’ – it was the terms that he set in the end. When I started having several discussions about what it would mean, he said you can criticise inside the Cabinet, but you can’t go outside and make your opposition to decisions we’ve arrived at collectively known. I thought that would be the death knell of the Democratic Party. What I did in this book was to reflect on what would have happened if got that? I wouldn’t have minded an executive office and executing policy from the heart of government.

Some of my supporters, for example Bobby Godsell and the late Harry Oppenheimer were very persuasive that I should take it. Other people such as Van Zyl Slabbert and Helen Suzman said ‘don’t touch it with a barge pole’, so there was plenty of advice.

The thing that really decided it was that we wouldn’t have been able to continue as an opposition party outside of that. I just wonder, 17 years later, if South Africa would have had an independent opposition because at that stage in 1997, the Democratic Party was making the running as an opposition although we only had seven MPs. Now, the Democratic Alliance has 89 MPs, but there might not have been 89 MP’s if we’d been absorbed into government then. It’s one of those ‘what if’ questions.

ALEC HOGG: Sometimes, being in the tent means you can make more of a change and that’s what I was interested in getting your view on. Had you been in the tent, you would have had more of a close-up view of what was going on, rather than adversarial. What do they say? A bucket full of bile is not as powerful as a thimble of honey. You are reflective, so did you ever reflect on that?

TONY LEON: I reflected on it for the last 17 years, particularly because I wondered about both those stories. Would I have been able to do anything? What really put me off as well at the time was that the ANC had just decided on cadre deployment and they said you mustn’t be ANC after hours. My friend Tito Mboweni actually said that, ironically. You have to be ANC all the time. I wouldn’t have been able to appoint the Director-General I wanted. It would have been someone from the ANC background. Many of the staff in the ministry would have been ANC. If they’d said, ‘you’re going to be Minister of Public Enterprises’ as was suggested…

However, I’m a privatiser. I believe the government does not do things as efficiently as private enterprise.

I would have been all in the forefront of selling off many of those enterprises to make them more competitive, to make them more efficient, and government policy would have been to the contrary. I did wrestle with this and resolve it much later on. Just when I stood down from Parliament and President Zuma, quite generously, asked if I wouldn’t like to be an ambassador (subject of another book). There, I thought you can serve the State without being a member of a Party and I tried to do that in South America. Whether I could have done it here… Well, it’s one of those ‘what if’s’. The evidence was very finely balanced. I’m talking about businesspeople. The late – and I refer to a very great business leader – Les Boyd, who was Deputy Chairman of Anglo American then – one of my informal consultants… I said to Les ‘I don’t know what to do here’. He said ‘follow your gut instinct’, so I said ‘well, my gut keeps changing’. He said ‘follow the first one’ and the first one was that the terms of admission were tempting, but were too high.

ALEC HOGG: Just to close off with, would you ever go back into politics?

TONY LEON: I’ve been there. I was an MP for 20 years and 30 years in either Party. I never say never, but I’m doing other things. Strangely enough, I think if you’re not in the pit of partisan politics, important though it is for democracy, you can often have more influence and you have a wider audience. When I was the leader of the DA, one looked at me through the lens, and the DA and I would look at the world through the DA lens. I don’t do that now, although obviously, part of what I was is part of me, I try to take a slightly wider view and I do find, as you know from your very good writings, that it is better that way than just saying I have to bang the party drum.

ALEC HOGG: Tony, it’s a fine contribution to the history, that of the most important time in South Africa as a young democracy. If you haven’t read the book, I promise you’ll find a lot in there that you didn’t know before. That was Tony Leon, author of ‘Opposite Mandela’.

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