Tony Leon on Nelson Mandela

Andrew Donaldson interviews the former DP leader about his new book "Opposite Mandela"

IN his new memoir, Opposite Mandela: Encounters with South Africa's Icon (Jonathan Ball), Tony Leon offers a behind-the-scenes insight into how the country's first democratically-elected president related to his political opponents (see Kindle edition here). Leon was, of course, leader of the then-minuscule Democratic Party and later the Democratic Alliance, and although the two men clashed, sometimes fiercely, on the issues of the day, the young white MP would enjoy an extraordinary accessibility to Nelson Mandela and his office.

Although this access ended abruptly when Thabo Mbeki took over, Leon's relationship with Mandela continued until 2006 - the time of their last conversation. Opposite Mandela is a chatty, personal account of those turbulent, "history-in-the-making" years. Leon engagingly explores such issues as race, reconciliation and corruption; these themes not only marked that period but continue to dominate as President Jacob Zuma enters his second term of office. The Mandela that emerges in Leon's account is a complex figure. There is the much-adored, warm, generous leader - and there is the Mandela the public seldom saw: Machiavellian, flawed, irrational and combative.

Our interview took place on Wednesday morning, at the Mount Nelson Hotel.

POLITICSWEB: The big surprise here, as you tell it, is the warmth of your relationship with Mandela

LEON: "It was an extraordinary feature. Not just of those times, but perhaps of what followed."

But there was also acrimony... 

"There were some pretty rough moments. But that's natural if you were on different political sides. That's why I wrote the book. There's a huge body of literature on Mandela - the authorised biography, the unauthorised biography, the book by the jailer, and so on. These people all had unique access to him. I had a different sort of access, based on the fact that I wasn't a supporter of his party. I was an opponent, and right from the beginning, when he moved into [Houghton], the area I represented [as an MP] back in 1992, he sought me out ... well, I sought him out - he was the most famous resident. But he responded to me so warmly and effusively from the very first moment, and that really persisted right until I left the leadership of the DA. That probably says a great deal about Mandela more than anything else. Richard Stengel, his ghostwriter, makes the point that Mandela was a great persuader and a great charmer. He was ... Stengel used the word ‘seductive'. In the political sense."

You write that FW de Klerk made that observation, that the charm was one of Mandela's two great faults, that he'd use it to smooth over problems without taking effective remedial action. The other was that he would sometimes fly off the handle without checking his facts beforehand.

"That was accurate in many ways. We had a big barney right at the beginning, in Parliament [in 1994], when I took the government on over the Shell House massacre. Mandela did not like to be crossed on certain issues. On other issues he was very relaxed. I also think Mandela did enjoy a robust discussion, a different viewpoint. It was almost useful for him to show me off - I was almost like a mascot at all these state dinners. [Leon gives a dubious impersonation of Mandela:] ‘This young man, he gives me all my trouble. Ha, ha, ha.' ‘Look here, we've got a functioning democracy here. If you have any doubt about that, just ask this young chap. He's the bloke giving me all my problems.' He would laugh about it."

There's a great anecdote about how, at one such function, to honour Queen Elizabeth II, this "democracy" spiel failed with Prince Philip, the Duke of Edinburgh. ["Why is your party called ‘Democratic'?" Philip demanded. "Aren't you all democrats now in South Africa? The problem with the word ‘democratic' is that all those republics in the Soviet Bock called themselves democratic and they weren't democratic at all, were they?"]

"Yes, he was not very impressed when Mandela gave him the normal ‘democratic' banter. ‘Oh what's so democratic about you.' He also went on to ask me, ‘What sort of democrat are you?' I said, ‘Well, we're liberals.' ‘Oh,' he said, ‘well, why don't you call yourselves liberals? We have plenty of liberals in England.' I said, ‘It's not really a very popular term in South Africa.' ‘Oh, I wonder why that is. . .' Well, one might wonder today as well."

The "rot", if we could call the intemperate and corrupt creep in our current public life, started on Mandela's watch.

"It's a mixed picture. Of the many things that happened on his watch, he got far more things right than he got wrong. But certainly the orange lights started to flash, as they would have, and now they've gone to bright red. I think the underestimated part of the Mandela years was that [ANC national] conference in Mafikeng [in December 1997]. Because the speech he made there really gave the green light for cadre deployment. It was the green light for turning on the press and civil society. It was the green light for deployment across the whole of society. Those were green-lighted at the end of the Mandela term, and he went along with it. He articulated it.

"And even corruption. I heard a radio commentator yesterday suggest that [former health minister, now chair of the African Union] Nkosazana Dlamini-Zuma is completely untainted by corruption. It's absolute rubbish. The biggest single corruption case at the start was over Sarafina II, which was the diversion of all that European Union Aids money into a play produced by her best friend, [playwright] Ngobeni Ngema. It was a complete waste of public expenditure, and it wasn't the amount involved, R14million [that was troublesome], it was the fact that Mandela closed ranks around her. [Mandela would do the same with scandals involving Stella Sigcau and Allan Boesak.] Rather than standing against the transgressor, he actually stood with the transgressor, he protected the transgressor and didn't stand against the sin. The arms deal was green-lighted on his watch, although we didn't know the extent of the corruption until he left office. It is fair to say that some early clues were salted to a problem that has become very embedded in South Africa."

Even so, he fought bitterly against his own party when it came to reconciliation.

"Yes. Mandela understood very well that you must actually be generous in victory and not mean-spirited. That is a very powerful lesson that he managed to get his way with. He did stand up against the ANC on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission,, for example. Mbeki went to court [to stop the TRC interim report from being issued] and Mandela said, basically, publish and be damned. I think that Mandela's attachment was not just to the constitution, which was something after all that he helped negotiate and certainly signed into law, but the rule of law itself. I cite that Louis Luyt [SA Rugby] court case where [Mandela] was dragged to court, subpoenaed as a witness, and the court found against him. It didn't make a very complimentary finding on his credibility as a witness. He was deeply outraged that he was dragged there. But he [appeared before the court], he said, ‘because of my respect for the administration of justice'. That really did mark him out in comparison to that which followed. So I think on some of those very big things, he did set the right signal. But other things, less so."

What if he had he served a second term?

That is the very great question. Well, the point to me about Mandela - as a person, a politician and everything else - was that he was deeply adaptive and flexible so he didn't stick to the hidebound positions because he'd once articulated them and the party held them. He demonstrated that with our first get-together way back in 1992 when he was telling [DP stalwarts] Ken Andrew and Zach de Beer and me how he'd been to Davos, the World Economic Forum, and he'd been bashed over the head by all these business people. As he put it, ‘They all want to be photographed with me, but they wouldn't donate a cent to South Africa because of [the ANC's] policies of nationalisation so I came back and said, Listen boys, we must change our policy.' 

"So I think Mandela did take lessons from the real world. He wasn't in that bubble, strangely enough, that so many politicians and business leaders find themselves in, which is an echo chamber. You know, ‘Yes sir, how high must I jump?' He did on many issues show a flexibility. HIV/Aids was perhaps the best example of that because, although the ignoring of the pandemic happened on his watch and he did nothing about it, the moment he stepped down as president, he listened and saw what was going - his own son had died of an Aids-related illness - and he changed. And then he tried to get the ANC to change, and that ended very unhappily for him. [In his book, Leon points to biographer Martin Meredith's ‘painful' account of an NEC meeting where Mandela tried in vain to get Mbeki and his supporters to revise their stance on HIV/Aids. Mandela was torn apart by ‘wild, aggressive and merciless' NEC members. ‘After his mauling,' one witness said, ‘Madiba looked twice his age, old and ashen.']

"But he then went out to proselytise for anti-retrovirals and against denialism. So you can't help but think that if he served a second term that South Africa would not have had that calamitous policy. I also think that Mandela's instincts - and you saw that with the Sani Abacha incident when [the Nigerian despot] executed [activist] Ken Saro-Wiwa - were, with certain qualifications, in favour of human rights."

He had no qualms, though, about who he took money from?

"No, he didn't. Basically he had an enormous attachment to countries or organisations that were pro-ANC during the struggle and he tended to allow that to be a blind spot. I mean, look at [former Indonesian dictator, President] Suharto. The irony is that Suharto was the one who gave Mandela those batik-styled shirts. But he did a lot of damage besides... In some ways it was purely mercenary so, for example, Suharto got [SA's highest honour, the Order of Good Hope, in exchange for contributions to the ANC's 1994 election fund]. It was a cash for an award offer. Ideologically, Suharto was vehemently anti-Communist. [Suharto's brutal anti-Communist purge of 1965-66 left at least 500 000 dead and about three times as many imprisoned.] And, don't forget, the ANC was busy fighting on behalf of independence in East Timor at the same time they were bestowing this honour on the very people [the Suharto regime] who had massacred the people in East Timor.

"We got into an argument, early one morning in January 1997 [shortly after Leon was offered a cabinet position by Mandela] because we were about to sell tank firing systems to the Syrian defence force. I mentioned to him that I didn't exactly have a pro-Syrian constituency in my little party, and he starts going into a thing about, ‘You know, America was against us, and Syria was in favour of us and therefore the regime of Hafez al-Assad [father of Bashar al-Assad], they were on the side of right and America was on the side of wrong.' 

"But he was prepared to speak up on behalf... I mean, look at [Robert] Mugabe! When he was rampaging through Zimbabwe in the 2000-2005 period I don't think that Mandela would have given him the kind of succour that Mbeki did. But you know, this is speculative."

At about that time, in January 1997 Mandela offered you a cabinet position, an appointment many DP members felt you should accept. Yet you refused because although Mandela had claimed there were often vehement disagreements in cabinet meetings and members were free to state their viewpoints, they would not be permitted to express their dissent in public. As he put it, "We must go out and face the world with one voice, just as Mugabe and [Joshua] Nkomo do."

"That sealed it for me. That's when I realised that this was a bridge too far. That is true, he did say that [Zimbabwe] was an example of a government of reconciliation, and I thought, ‘Ja, but at what price?' I don't think Mandela had a high regard at all for Mugabe. He told me once, ‘You know, we were in Addis Ababa, at a meeting of the Organisation of African Unity, and I came into the room and all the people, the dignitaries and the media, that were surrounding Mugabe left him and they came to talk to me.' And he said, ‘I think that he was very angry that day and I'm not sure that his anger has recovered.'"

Which brings us to Mandela's anger towards FW de Klerk, and his treatment of the  National Party leader. You quote a source as saying, "In Mandela's eyes, De Klerk became the proxy for much of the anger he felt and managed so masterfully to mask from view, towards the group and community FW came from." Who was this insider?

"I can't identify him because he was a person of consequence in Mandela's cabinet, and I suspect he will be a person of consequence in the future of this country, so let me not be more indiscreet than I already have been in this book. There was a very bad chemistry between De Klerk and Mandela - to the extent that Mandela would say that, look, it was easier to deal with PW Botha. But I put that down to the fact that they were both on the same stage at the same time. It's easier to look on a predecessor with more fondness than your contemporary. But I was struck by that ‘proxy' comment, because Mandela masked his true feelings very well in the national interest, and that De Klerk really was the proxy for what Mandela thought. We saw that at Codesa, back in December 1991. Wow, that fury came out there! That first meeting, there was a misunderstanding about who would speak last, and then De Klerk said something, and Mandela just lost it, just ripped into him, and said, ‘You have no idea what democracy means!' There was a lot of anger."

But they made up afterwards? There was, for want of a better term, a "gentlemanliness" to it all?

"There was - but there was no repair of the structural rift. Which was inherent in that government of national unity."

And Mandela could play the race card?

"He certainly played it on occasion, as I recall. But usually when he felt cornered. It wasn't done as a matter of course. The reflexive use of it now has almost discounted its efficacy but it was used by him to defend, I felt, the indefensible. Corruption, and so on. He had this wonderful attitude towards me until I crossed him on Shell House and then he just lost his temper, and said, ‘Well, you know, I know who you are, you're just a young man who wants to make a good impression, your party's all white.' What the hell, I thought, has that got to do with the price of eggs? He was very angry with this probe I was conducting into the massacre. It didn't start off like that but eventually when he couldn't convince me to back down he kind of used that tactic. But I would say that was more the exception than the rule with him."

Then there was the John Dugard affair. In March 1995 Mandela told your that there was a problem with the DP's nomination of Dugard - a professor in international law and a respected human rights champion - to the soon-to-be-established Human Rights Commission, and that Dugard should be dropped in favour of veteran MP Helen Suzman. There was no reason why, as you suggested, both of them couldn't be on the HRC, but Dugard had to be dropped?

"That was a strange one. [Leon writes in his book, ‘It suggested, and this later became the iron rule in the new South Africa, just as it had pervaded the old republic, that individual merit merit would be placed second to racial and political preferment. That the liberal community would, almost by definition, have more rights activists in its camp as a proportion of its overall numerical strength was passed over in this early signal that political and racial representivity would trump other considerations.' 

"That happened [at a time when it seemed the HRC] would have a huge role to play. Immediately afterwards there was controversy about the appointments with [then HRC chair] Barney Pityana getting into a row with [Judge] Dennis Davis, who hasn't a racist bone in his body and [who] criticised some rightwing conservative being there instead of Dugard. But then Pityana said, ‘If you criticise us you're criticising a black president and ipso facto you're a racist.' 

"It was such a thought-blocking response but that almost became the terms of trade for everything afterwards. I think that was a moment when we were having our maximum glasnost in South Africa and everything seemed open and Brave New World when - boom! Public appointments are now being made, you're being critical of them? You're going to be blocked with the racist card. And it doesn't matter who does it. For example, there's Joe Slovo's widow, Helena Dolny, being elbowed out of her position [as managing director] at the Land Bank by some apparatchik who was a homeland trustee who happened to be black. But she's white, so she can go to hell? The fact that she's Joe Slovo's widow and had impeccable credentials didn't matter. 

"I think if you're to look back at that you've got to say, ‘Well, there was a big paradox, and South Africa's filled with paradoxes and contradictions - because Mandela was in many ways the great non-racialist, the great rainbow warrior, but at the same time, very quickly, racialisation was reasserting itself across the board in South Africa. A lot of people didn't want to speak about that. ‘No, no, no, you can't say that,' and so on, but it was so. It's now entrenched, that re-racialistaion. It's not a question of affirmative action, it's a question of racial quotas. And racial quotas are very far from what the constitution had in mind and very far from that more hopeful vision of Mandela's."

Can we talk of deconstitionalisation? 

"I think there are a lot of threats to the constitution. I quote [Deputy Minister of Correctional Services Ngoako] Ramathlodi in my book, and he says there is a body of opinion inside the ANC that regards the constitutional transition as a bit of a hoax. [Leon reads:] ‘In 2011, [Ramathlodi] stated that the constitutional transition was a victory for "apartheid forces" who wanted to "retain white domination under a black government". This was achieved "by emptying the legislature and executive of real power" and giving it to "the other constitutional institutions and civil society movements".' There are many others in the ANC who share this opinion."

You end your book with a quote from JM Coetzee, on Mandela: "He was, and by the time of his death was universally held to be, a great man; he may well be the last of the great men, as the concept of greatness retires into the shadows."

"Mandela wasn't just a great man, which he was, he was also dealing with great times. When you're dealing with this drama, the end of an era, the beginning of a new one, it's..." 

Cometh the hour, cometh the man?

"Absolutely. Now it's the day-to-day stuff, which he didn't give that much attention to. That becomes the preoccupation of his successors. And that is probably true of every political succession where you have a new era and a great leader and by definition successors who have to deal with that. I think that was part of Mbeki's frustration, that he was the guy who had to deal with the rubbish and clean out the lavatories as it were. There was Mandela, basking in the adulation of the world, and there he was going around having to sort out everything."

This article was published with the assistance of the Friedrich-Naumann-Stiftung für die Freiheit (FNF). The views presented in the article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of FNF.

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