The two South Africas

Tony Leon says that too often, particularly in minority communities, there's a tendency to adopt a bystander stance

Address by Ambassador Tony Leon, Council of KwaZulu Natal Jewry Annual Meeting, Durban, July 23 2013

 "The False Twilight of the Two South Africas"

President, Vice President, Office Bearers of the Council of Kwa Zulu Natal Jewry.

Good evening and thank you for inviting my wife Michal and I to share this evening with you.

I am particularly pleased to have the opportunity of presenting my remarks in my home town and at a venue, the Jewish Club, which so framed my childhood and early political career. It was here that I used to play tennis on a Sunday afternoon back as a schoolboy in the 1960's, and it was also here shortly after my election as Leader of the Democratic Party in 1994 that I used to address our members at conferences and in 1996, where we held our eve of election rally for the Durban municipal elections back in June 1996. So the Jewish Club has been a still and enduring centre in a very turbulent and fast moving world, and in my own personal and political journey.

On the subject of this club and this community, just last week I sent a packing case of old press cuttings and speeches to Institute of National Contemporary History at the University of Free State, where my political papers are archived. I happened to open one of the albums from 1990, and came across the following invitation card:

Durban Women's Zionist League Invites you to the 56th Annual General Meeting.

Guest Speaker: Mr Tony Leon MP for Houghton

Subject: "Is There a Role for Jews in South Africa?"

Durban Jewish Club, Wednesday 21 February 1990 at 9.30 am.

I must have answered the question posed in the affirmative, for here, twenty three plus year later, we still are and I am still the guest speaker at the same venue to the same community!

You might recall, through the mists of time, what was going on back then and there in February 1990. My address to the Durban Women's Zionist League occurred just three weeks after then President FW De Klerk detonated his speech of thermo-nuclear intensity in parliament on an unsuspecting political landscape to an unbelieving world, which had long since written off the prospects of a negotiated, peaceful and democratic settlement being possible in apartheid South Africa. As a consequence of President De Klerk turning his back on 350 years of South Africa's history, just 10 days before my lesser speech at the Durban Jewish Club, Nelson Mandela walked out of the Victor Verster Prison as a free man for the first time in 27 years. Those were exciting but uncertain days indeed as we faced history-in-the-making, with no certainty as to how it would unfold and where it would leave the South African way of live.

I was curious, reading through the same album, to see what outcome I predicted back then for this and the larger South African community, as I, a backbench MP then commencing the first of what would be twenty years in Parliament, threw my Sangoma bones and donned the robes of Madame Rose peering into my crystal ball of South Africa's future. Political predictions are always a hazardous business, and most do not read so well later on. As Samuel Goldwyn memorably said -

Always avoid making predictions, most of all about the future.

The same album did however contain a short report of my Durban speech in the Cape Argus of 21 February 1990, under the headline -

Genie Out of the Bottle for Good, says Leon. An extract from it reads:

President De Klerk's reform initiatives would unleash their own momentum and timetables for change, which would probably consign other grand plans and timetables to oblivion in the next few months. In these circumstances it was the duty of a white politician to tell the truth that sooner rather than later South Africa was going to be governed by a government in which the majority of participants were black..."

In that, I suppose safe and perhaps inevitable, prediction I was correct, and the rest, as they say, is history, and has been our lived reality since April 1994.

But it was not always such a certainty that we would be gathered here, in peaceful circumstances, although doubtless in fewer numbers than back then, some twenty three years later.

A few years ago, the late Israeli historian and journalist, Amos Elon, published a book of magnificent and tragic history- "The Pity of it All: A History of the Jews in Germany 1743- 1933". You will note the period the book covers, from the entry of the first Jews, under extreme sufferance and prejudice into Berlin, through centuries of persecution into a golden age where Jewish life, letters and civilisation flourished in post Bismarkian Germany until the ascent of Hitler in January 1933, where the book, and effectively two hundred years of Jewish communal life, ends.

This book is unusual because it deals not with the unique evil of the holocaust, but with the land, language and historical tides which shaped, and ultimately, destroyed arguably the greatest of all European Jewish communities. Elon notes, in his introduction, -

Some claim to have discerned an inexorable pattern in German history preordained from Luther's days to culminate in the Nazi Holocaust. According to this theory, German Jews were doomed from the outset, their fate as immutable as a law of nature. Such absolute certainties have eluded me. I have found only a series of ups and downs and a succession of unforeseeable contingencies, none of which seem to have been inevitable. Alongside the Germany of anti-Semitism there was a Germany of enlightened liberalism, humane concern, civilised rule of law, good government, social security, and thriving social democracy. Even Hitler's rise to power in January 1933 was not the result of electoral success (the Nazi's share of the vote had seriously declined in the Fall of 1932). Rather, Hitler's triumph was the product of backstage machinations by conservative politicians and industrialists who overcame the hesitations of a senile president by convincing him (and themselves) that they were "hiring" Hitler to restore order and curb the trade unions.

Hindsight is not necessarily the best guide to understanding what really happened. The past is often distorted by hindsight as it is clarified by it...Fritz Stein the foremost expert on the subject of the assimilated Jews of Germany, has argued that the history of assimilated Jews of Germany was much more than the history of tragedy; it was also for a long time the story of an extraordinary success: "We must understand the triumphs in order to understand the tragedy." We must see the German Jews in the context of their time and, at the very least, appreciate their authenticity, the way they saw themselves and others, often with reason. For long periods, they had cause to believe in their ultimate integration, as did most Jews in Western Europe, in the United States and even in czarist Russia. It was touch and go almost to the end."

I am not attempting, obviously, to compare the fate or fortune of this community, in early 21st century Durban, South Africa to the circumstances of the Jewish community in Germany of eighty years ago and before. However, there are some useful parameters which Amos Elon does provide particularly when he refers to "a series of ups and downs and a succession of unforeseeable contingencies, none of which seem to have been inevitable."

The same frame, in my view, provides a useful lens through which to view our own "ups and downs" of two past two decades, and more pertinently posit some thoughts on our future. In both looking back and casting forward, we can agree, with respect to our own country, that Amos Elon's conclusion of the triumphant and then tragic history of Jews in Germany that there is no "inexorable pattern" of events and "no absolute certainties" and "no inevitable contingencies."

Shortly after my speech here in Durban back in 1990, I encountered an impressive journalist based in Johannesburg, who was the bureau chief of the New York Times. Bill Keller was to be an eye witness and chronicler for that mighty newspaper of South Africa's transition years from apartheid to democracy, and all the epochal events between those two book ends of our national story. After leaving South Africa he went on to become editor in chief of that global shaper of opinion. Recently, in May 2013, he revisited South Africa, through the pages of the New York Review of Books. This was his take on current events here-

"If South Africa does not leave you full of ambivalence you have not been paying attention. It is a country where the ruling alliance includes the Communist Party, but the real economic power is capitalist; where corruption is rampant but a vigorous press reports it; where the constitutional court legalised gay marriage and lesbians are gang raped; where the (shopping) malls are populated by a multiracial consumer class, and millions live in shacks. It is inspiring and dispiriting."

Locally, and in similar vein, at the recent (June 2013) Alan Paton Literary Awards ceremony, eminent Constitutional Court Justice, Edwin Cameron, eloquently described the duality of South Africa today:

We are now nearly twenty years into our constitutional democracy. Much has been achieved -perhaps more than those of us who tend to worry realise.

Almost all violent crime is down. Compared with 1994 the murder rate has halved. The government's housing programme has put many millions of South Africans in their own homes. In 1994, just more than half of households had electricity; now 85% do. In 1994, just more than a third of six-year old children were in school; now 85% are.

The average black family income has increased by about a third. And, through the system of social grants totalling about R120-bn every year, the very poorest in our country are afforded some elements of a dignified material existence and some access to a measure of social power.

Most importantly, these material gains have been achieved in a functioning democracy.

Our polity is boisterous, rowdy, sometimes cacophonous and often angry. That much is to be expected. But after more than two decades, we have more freedom, more debate, more robust and direct engagement with each other -and certainly more social justice than 20 years ago.

But after listing these not inconsiderable achievements, the learned Judge goes on to note that "all is not well". In this regards he cites the evidence which will be well known to members of this audience tonight and to many outside the walls of this hall: a political debate that is "divisive to the point of annihilation"; the prevalence of a "race rhetoric that often substitutes for performance". Gross inequality, largely racially structured persists two decades on and in other areas, everything from schooling to basic services evinces an "institutional decay and infrastructural disintegration that have reached dismaying proportions."

Unsurprisingly, last year saw the highest number of service-delivery protests, and nearly nine out of ten of them were violent. More and more municipalities and national departments fail to meet the basic auditing requirements.

He concludes this list of lamentable failures and shortcomings with this warning:

Not unconnected with the accounting chaos, the tide of corruption washes higher and higher. It threatens to engulf us. The shameless looting of our public assets by many politicians and government officials is a direct threat to our democracy and all we hope to achieve in it.

To many, the culture of high minded civic aspiration that characterised our struggle for racial justice and our transition to democracy seems distinctly frayed, if not in tatters.

What are we to make of these essentially two South Africas, identified by an eminent foreign journalist and a distinguished local jurist? In truth, we live in both of them and there is enough evidence to point to our country either becoming a fast tracked success story of the future or a failing state, remembered for the big things it got right two decades ago, but for the many things which have gone wrong since then. Perhaps the truth lies in both directions, a sort of "schizophrenic republic" (as James Baldwin dubbed the USA) with islands of success and achievement afloat in a sea of sleaze and dysfunctionality.

Late last year, Michal and I returned from three years abroad as South African Ambassador to Argentina and surrounding countries. The advantage of my appointment as President Zuma's emissary abroad was that it allowed us, to look at South Africa from a distance and to swop my previous job of selling the opposition to South Africans for the task of selling South Africa to the South Americans. "Distance", as Queen Elizabeth once observed, "lends enchantment." I sincerely believe that we never sold out on any core principles, but do believe that our service proves that your party identity is irrelevant when it comes to serving your country.

I have just written a book The Accidental Ambassador -From Parliament to Patagonia- which chronicles our adventures in the land of the Gaucho and Evita, a country of even more extreme contradictions than South Africa. Just one example of this, which I detail in the book, is the presence in Buenos Aires of one of the largest and certainly most thriving Jewish communities in the world, numbering some 175 000, which after 1945 had to co-exist with a host of high-end Nazi war criminals, from Joseph Mengele (who was never apprehended) to Adolf Eichmann who famously was.

Aside from observing the similarities and differences between two societies, separated by their turbulent histories, the South Atlantic Ocean and the Spanish language, the most striking takeaway feature of Argentina is the most important, baleful lesson it offers us here at home: You cannot live in the past. Argentina in the 1930's was one of the ten largest economies in the world, where the expression "as rich as an Argentine" echoed across the grand salons and estates of Europe, most of whose countries were considerably poorer and certainly less democratic than this famed home of endless Pampas, whose grasslands produced most of the beef and much of the cereal for the world back then.

Today, Argentina is in free-fall. Its economy is considerably smaller than South Africa's, and it is by any measure far worse governed, less democratic than we are; it is also the world's poster boy for spectacular economic folly. In my book, I identify the fault line which runs through Argentine politics. I called my chapter on it, "Vote for A Better Yesterday" -an accurate and sad diagnosis for a country which still adjudicates political decision making through the lens and memory of President Juan Domingo Peron, who died in 1974, and his second wife, Evita, who died in 1952! Living on past glories relieves you of having to making the tough choices going forward. It might help win elections but, as Argentina's case proves, it beggars the future.

What suggestions can I then make about our own situation here in South Africa and ensure we do not be remembered for the big things which we got right twenty or more years ago and also for the considerable failures which we have witnessed since the golden years of the Mandela presidency? Will we continue to make down payments on the past or will we make a pact for the future?

If you go back to the list enumerated by Justice Cameron, you will see that many, although certainly not all, of our post -1994 achievements have happened in arenas outside the ambit of the state or government. Although the government has in fact delivered many services and entitlements to the poorest and most marginalised, it has failed in other key areas of state performance, from providing certainty to the investor community and so creating conditions for sustainable growth and employment, to achieving good and balanced labour relations and basic, never mind good, maths and science education to the next generation.

It is easy, but in my opinion, wrong to see in this state-failure the failure of our country. I am indebted to my 26-year old Israeli-South African stepson, Etai, a South African citizen by choice rather than birth, for this observation.

Indeed, the sun may have set on many of South Africa's historical accomplishments - achieving a democracy on the stony soil of racial conflict and giving the world the example of a rainbow nation - but in some ways this is a false twilight. Left often to our our own devices, we discover that in the process our own devices are still considerable.

Just look at the performance and benchmarking of our private sector, which despite rather than because of government interference, achieves some of the top positions on global surveys for its regulation, efficiencies and performance. Just look at the international achievements of Durban born entrepreneurs such as Stephen Saad and Martin Moshal to mention two high achievers in the hyper competitive world markets in which their businesses excel and operate. Think of how our positioning on the southern tip of the African continent, the world's fastest growing economic region is a net plus today, in terms of teeming future markets; whereas when I grew up here the same continent was a byword for conflict and disease and poverty.

But to live in South Africa today requires us to be in South Africa, not just physically, but mentally and spiritually and politically. Too often, particularly in minority communities, there is a tendency to be a bystander and not an "upstander" in charting the country's progress. It is a case of politics and civil engagement being "their" responsibility and not "our" concern or obligation. And so because some of us adopt what I call "the half a loaf" attitude of living in the country but not in a civic sense being engaged with it, our commitment -no less than our expectations - is half baked.

Frankly, as an English-speaking Jewish South African from Durban I was, objectively, triply disqualified from assuming the leadership of a major political party twenty or so years ago. In the days of white politics it was assumed that only an Afrikaner could lead a political movement, and since 1994 it was assumed that only a black person could lead an opposition party. I do not claim any exceptionalism for myself, except to note that if I had concentrated on my adjectival limitations, instead of my" South Africaness", I would never have entered, let alone got going, in the arduous arena of South African politics.

Let me conclude with another Durban figure of current eminence. Nearly ten years ago, in December 2004 I addressed a meeting of the SA Jewish Board of Deputies in Cape Town. The atmosphere there was certainly a lot cooler (or hotter, I suppose) than it is here tonight. For I went there to criticise the Board, not to praise it. An account of this meeting appears in the excellent work, "The Jews of South Africa" by Professors Milton Shain and Richard Mendelsohn (Jonathan Ball. 2008).

I explicitly said that the Board back then was practicing what I termed "the creping politics of influence" with the then government. It went cap-in-hand to seek favours, and I asked the question: "It is unclear why the leaders of the Jewish community should feel that they have to "ask favours" form anyone at all ... the security and entitlements of this community are not a privilege granted by the government or the ruling party or (any department of state). These are constitutional rights."

My rather robust views did not find favour back then with this community's leadership, who preferred a path of quiet and non-confrontational engagement with the authorities.

I was therefore genuinely pleased when Mary Kluk of Durban assumed, in more recent times, the leadership of the Board and began to advance the interests of the community in a more forthright fashion. The B.D.S ("Boycott, Disinvest and Sanction") campaign against Israel, for example, called for a variety of responses.

Mary, and her colleagues, did not simply "go along to get along". They confronted the one-eyed and one-sided attitude and standpoint of the SA Government with a variety of responses -public, legal and, where necessary, confrontational. That is why the "labelling" of products from the Occupied Territories by the DTI has been pursued by the Board in the public arena in a more effective fashion than we witnessed in the past. May this be the hallmark of community leadership going forward.

In 2004, Natan Sharansky , the former Soviet dissident and political prisoner, who became a political leader in Israel, published a major work on freedom entitled "The Case for Democracy."  In the book he elaborates, with passion and clarity, that freedom is rooted in the right to dissent, to walk into the town square and declare one's views without fear of punishment or reprisal.

For the many things that have gone right and wrong with South Africa since our first steps toward becoming a free society back in 1990, Sharansky's universal observation that "the democracy which sometimes dislikes us is a much safer place than the dictatorship which loves us" must serve as our guide into the future.. We must use that "safe place" to stand up for the values which matter and the causes which endure to this community and, beyond it, for the interests of all freedom-loving South Africans.


Thank you.