Tony Leon: DA’s original Young Lion on Pappas, Geordin; the party’s 15x growth; and SA’s 2024 Election

Under his leadership, Tony Leon witnessed the Democratic Alliance mushroom from a tiny 1.7% of the national vote in the 1994 election to become Parliament’s Official Opposition at 15x that number – and potentially a leading player in Government after the watershed election in May 2024. Leon retired from Parliament in 2007 and from public life entirely in 2012 after a three-year stint as SA’s Ambassador to Argentina. But the legally trained son of a High Court Judge from an anti-apartheid family remains plugged into SA’s political story. In this interview with Alec Hogg of BizNews he shares some of his own experiences; offers a perspective on how the careers of the DA’s other young achievers in politics may develop – and provides insights into how the Democratic Alliance is likely to approach the 2024 National Election, with some sobering post-poll scenarios.

Find the interview timestamps below:

  • Tony Leon on his background and constructing the opposition – 01:27
  • On the two young lions of the Democratic Alliance – Chris Pappas and Geordin Hill-Lewis – 07:25
  • On diversity within political parties – 12:53
  • On writing a plan for Helen Zille and John Steenhuisen – 21:45

Extracts from the interview:

Tony Leon on his background and constructing the opposition

I was leader of my party for 13 years, which is probably far too long. But I was very involved in the reconstruction, or the construction of opposition in South Africa, by merging together the Democratic Party and the former sworn enemies, the National Party, and creating the Democratic Alliance. The creation of this is the fundamental reason the DA governs the Western Cape, the City of Cape Town, and the belt of other municipalities. The idea was to really close down the opposition fight and take the fight to the majority party, the ANC. When that had been accomplished by 2007, I thought the baton must be passed on to someone else. And indeed, Helen Zille picked it up and did pretty well with it. You’ve got to know, as Morné du Plessis said to me when I quit, he said it’s much better for people to ask why you aren’t on the field than why you’re still on it. So I thought that was very wise career and transition advice, and I’ve tried to apply it. I don’t have regrets. There are other folks doing what I used to do, and they’re doing it in very different circumstances than I had to contend with, and I wish them well. 

On the two ‘young lions’ of the Democratic Alliance – Chris Pappas and Geordin Hill-Lewis

I met Geordin when he was an 18-year-old activist in the party when I was the leader. He just showed a depth of knowledge that was unusual. And, you know, someone like Geordin would be exceptional in any society, in any polity. In South Africa, we have an enormous dumbing down and ‘mediocritization’ if that’s the right word. And Geordin rises above that because of his own merits. I think folks are seeing now that he’s on a bigger stage. Chris Pappas who I met once at a dinner in Durban, so I don’t know him as well, but he certainly seems to have great talent. 

Both Geordin and Chris Pappas are exceptional people. But they also do the basics. They are not pretentious. They don’t have these delusions of grandeur and some sense that they’ve got a God-given right to be mayor. That’s not their shtick at all. And they pay attention to detail. I also think with them, and it’s not confined to them, but it’s perhaps unusual that they have good judgement. We had Thabo Mbeki. He was very intelligent and very intellectually well studied, but he had shocking judgement, as we saw over the HIV / AIDS debacle, which cost hundreds of thousands of lives. But I think having good judgement, aligned with integrity and intelligence, is an important combination in a political or any other career.

On writing a plan for Helen Zille and John Steenhuisen

One must be realistic. The DA doesn’t need to get 50%. It needs to up its voter share. It’s a bit like being a minority shareholder in a company. But where your minority share can block the majority shareholder from doing what the majority shareholder wishes to do with the company. In a sense, the DA’s role – it sounds unexciting. But in a fragmenting polity, it actually becomes very valuable real estate. So if I was running the DA today, which I have no aspirations to do, I would absolutely say to max out your potential votes where you can get them. 

When I was at Harvard, Ricardo Hausmann lectured on a course I was on. He said that the problem with the South African economy is that the government is trying to create an economy for the workers they wished they had, rather than the workers they actually have. 

I don’t think that the DA can get into a political contest where it dreams of an electorate that it’s not going to reach. The DA is not going to, for a range of reasons and history, get a whole lot of voters in the rural Eastern Cape or Zululand. I could give you a list of places it won’t get. What it’s got to do is to maximise the votes where it has the potential of access. 

So if I were running the DA, I would make sure that every single potential voter in each ward I’d won across the country was registered to vote – to maximise what you’ve got and who you could potentially reach. You maximise your outcome on Election Day in the hope that the opposition, the ANC, is so dispirited and demoralised, they won’t be able to maximise the vote. They’ve got to keep the narrative positive. They’ve got a story to tell. Speaking from the Western Cape, we have less loadshedding than the rest of the country, which sounds like a race to the bottom. We have less loadshedding because they took much better mitigation factors, and they don’t steal the money. They generally don’t encourage criminality with the electricity connection. So there are much better mitigation factors here than in the rest of the country. 

They need to project that and to broadcast that and say what’s happened here; you can have it everywhere. To use that old aphorism, which is entirely true: oppositions don’t win elections; governments lose elections. In the recorded history of South Africa, no government has done more to lose support than this government. The ANC government is a spectacular destruction of a country, its infrastructure, and its job prospects. The ANC can’t run away from that. So the DA has got to offer some hope. It has to maximise its turnout where it has potential, not where it wishes it had potential. They won’t be at 50%, but they will make themselves a significant player if – and it’s also a big presupposition – the ANC is down in the forties, and the ANC is not disposed to forming a coalition with the EFF. There are a lot of ifs and buts, but I don’t see any other road in the next 12 months. 

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