From Argentina to Zille

Tony Leon on South Africa today, the opposition and the SA govt's stance on Israel


"South Africa Today: Some Home Thoughts Developed Abroad"

Thank you for this kind reception to welcome Michal and me back to Cape Town. We are enjoying our re-immersion in Cape Town and South Africa after more than three years abroad, representing South Africa in the southern cone of South America.

Tonight you have asked me to address a range of issues, captured by the title on the Board of Deputies' poster advertising tonight's event, "From Argentina to Zille". That pretty much covers the table of both my past two jobs, formerly as leader of the opposition and the Democratic Alliance, and latterly as Ambassador to Argentina and surrounding countries.

Let me start locally and share with you some ‘home thoughts developed abroad'.

South Africa Today

You do not need to hear from me the litany of what is wrong or going awry in South Africa right now. You can read it in every newspaper or hear about it on every radio talk show. 

Following events back home from Buenos Aires was similar to watching a movie with the soundtrack switched off. We could read everything, without the background noise and context in which it was happening.

Every morning, my embassy colleagues and I would scour the Internet and departmental media digests to track the news and developments in the homeland. It was easy enough to succumb to depression - given the mushroom clouds of venality and stupendous breaches of constitutional faith detonated by those in the highest reaches of government.

Yet even the worst events back home, and one became spoilt for choice in this category, seemed to suggest that some buds of a new spring were sprouting in even the harshest of political winters. The judiciary, for example, has been under assault by the government and some very dubious characters were promoted to the bench while some excellent candidates, for reasons of race or intellectual independence, and usually for both factors, were passed over. Yet, the highest courts of the land still continue, in some very significant judgments, to find against the government.

It had all been preordained before in the old South Africa. In the 1930s, the National Party minister of justice, Oswald Pirow, noted with disgust:

‘The problem with political appointments to the bench, is that six months after their appointment, they presume they were appointed on merit!'

I had told Michal as we set off on our foreign adventure, that there was unlikely to be - in the context of the uncontroversial diplomatic relationship with my countries of accreditation - any issues on which I would be obliged to advance a policy proposition that conflicted with my political principles.

Fortunately, my optimism was justified by my real time experience. However, I added as an afterthought to her:

‘If the Protection of Information Bill [which had been introduced into parliament shortly before my departure] is enacted, I will have to reconsider my position here.'

This spectacular piece of legislative mischief as you know was  designed to inhibit severely, if not totally interdict, the media and prevent the exposure of corruption by giving ministers of state sweeping powers to classify information as secret and imposing sentences of up to 25 years in prison on those convicted of violating its muzzling provisions.

Yet, amazingly, the bill remained a work in progress even tonight, although the NCOP appears to have imposed its own version of it, despite opposition dissatisfaction with its processes. Actually, its slow passage and some significant amendments offered by government to ameliorate some, although not all, of its more extreme provisions, was not just due to executive lethargy. It was occasioned by an energetic pushback by a range of political and civil society actors, from across the racial and partisan divides.

In fact, a decade or so before, I had strongly warned against the cronyism and constitutionally damaging acts embedded in ANC-sponsored concepts and practices such as the ‘national democratic revolution', ‘cadre deployment' and ‘black economic empowerment'. I was dismissed at the time (often, I noted with an amused irony, by the most stringent critics of ANC excesses today) as, variously, ‘anti-transformation', ‘the voice of white privilege' and ‘the fight-back king'.

Now, an entire chorus, including some significant black intellectuals, media editors and trade unionists, was singing from the same hymn sheet, often in far more strident and less polite notes than any I had sounded from my perch as leader of the opposition.

Opposition stirrings

On the subject of the opposition leadership, I note with approval the strides made by my successors in title, to expand the reach and widen the diversity on the other side of South Africa's political aisle, within the opposition, particularly in the party that I had devoted most of my life to serving, building and leading, now incarnated as the Democratic Alliance.

I do, however, get slightly irritated when I note anonymous ‘top leadership sources in the Democratic Alliance' stating that the party's new repositioning was a conscious effort to move away from the ‘conservative liberalism of former party leader Tony Leon with his fight b(l)ack campaign', to quote from one media story I read while away.

I do not intend to get into a bidding war as to my role in thirteen years as the party leader. I will simply say this:  I did what needed to be done in a very difficult set of circumstances, to create a viable and larger opposition; and, the very beneficiaries of the ‘fight-back' era have entered the portals of power, in the Western Cape at least, through the platform that I, and at the time very few other colleagues, had built.

When I led the opposition in South Africa, nothing divided the parties comprising that side of the political aisle as much as questions of unity. In the ANC we were going up against history, as that party held all the moral and political high ground and presented a formidable, often frightening, unity in the face of any opposition, external or internal. Today, the opposite is true: the opposition has the wind behind its back and the ANC juggernaut is showing signs of decay and sclerosis -the symptoms of a house divided whose inevitable right to rule is now under both question and strain. 

You do not need to be an opposition partisan to appreciate that the constitutional and democratic health of this country depends on more competitive politics and less certain electoral outcomes in the future. When that happens, as it surely will pretty soon, then our fine constitutional prospectus will start to live and breathe again and be rescued from the torpor of one-party domination.

I do not believe, incidentally, that South Africa is about to fall off the cliff and plunge into a failed state scenario. There are simply too many countervailing forces, feedback mechanisms and significant institutions, corporate and civil, for us to follow the road to ruin of neighbouring Zimbabwe, for example.

But equally "muddling along", "hoping something will turn up" or ignoring the siren voices both at home and abroad will not get us onto the fast track we set out on, with brave determination, back in 1994. As The Economist editorialised in another context, "the ecosystem of a great country is a complex and fragile thing." Our task as citizens is to engage with the complexity and interdict our weaknesses. As simple, and as complicated, as that.

South Africa and the Middle East

One of my areas of profound disagreement with the department of International Relations, while serving in it, was over our policy in the Middle East. This is not because I am uncritical of Israel's continued occupation of the West Bank and the misery and oppression occasioned by that fact. Indeed I (and my Israeli-born wife) am. But I am also mindful of the context of it, and recently returned from Argentina, I can say, with more feeling than most that "it takes two to Tango".

South Africa's one-eyed, one sided approach to the question of Israel and its opponents is both monotonous and futile. Our equal determination (something  I engaged both the Minister and Director General of  Dirco about) to turn a blind eye to the oppressive regimes of Libya (under Gadhafi) and Syria under Assad and being so behind the curve on the Arab Spring simply undermined our moral capital and squandered our international credibility.

I recently was very struck when I addressed a large gathering of this community in Johannesburg at quite how alienated the Jewish community feels in its own country as a result of this approach. When I had the opportunity to engage, subsequently, with the highest reaches of our government I made the following point: the estrangement is due to the SA government (as they see it) singling out Israel for exemplary treatment (through labeling products from the occupied territories and travel avoidance notices etc.).

Simply put, I would estimate that 90% of the South African Jewish community has a very strong and positive identification, for reasons of culture and history, with the State of Israel. Their current estrangement is due to the fact that, in their experience, their own government has singled out Israel for negative treatment and attention applied by the government to no other country, or disputed territory, in the world.

Since I have no mandate (and I certainly do not seek one) to speak on this community's behalf, I believe that the government should engage the community leadership directly on this issue and listen to their concerns.

Direct and robust dialogue between citizens and government is in fact the best approach on all the great issues South Africa confronts as we head into our nineteenth year of freedom under democracy.

Thank you.

Issued by HWB Communications (Pty) Ltd on behalf of The Office of Tony Leon, November 29 2012

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