Death and the DA

Gareth van Onselen writes on the official opposition's politics of public condolences

In July last year, on the back of social media speculation, the Democratic Alliance released a statement of condolence for the death of former Zambian President Kenneth Kaunda. The problem was, he wasn’t dead. And so the party was forced to retract, and issue an apology instead.

Kaunda was not, what you might call, a committed liberal democrat. He turned Zambia into a one-party state, manipulating various elective processes and state patronage in such a way that only he would be nominated and elected as president. A highly autocratic socialist, he banned all opposition parties and his “planned economy” turned out to be quite the opposite. After having nationalised most of it, the failure to diversify and an overreliance on copper exports meant that, in 1976, when the copper price crashed, so did the Zambian economy. By the 1980s Zambia had one of the highest debt-to-GDP ratios in the world. It would eventually be his undoing.

The DA’s statement, issued by DA leader Mmusi Maimane, made no mention of any of this, however. Instead, it focused rather on Kaunda’s liberation credentials. The full, now-retracted statement read as follows:

“On behalf of the Democratic Alliance (DA), I wish to express my deepest and most sincere condolences to the family and loved ones of freedom fighter, African liberator, and the founding father of Zambia, Kenneth Kaunda, who has passed away aged 93. Kenneth Kaunda remains a prominent figure in the fight for independence on the African continent, playing a leading role in Zambia’s struggle for liberation, which began in 1949 when he resigned as a school teacher to take up an active role in politics.

After serving in various roles in the party and its predecessor, Kaunda became president of Zambia’s United National Independence Party (UNIP) in 1960 after his release from prison. Just 4 years later, Zambia won independence and Kaunda became its first president when he won the 1964 general elections. He continued to serve as Zambian president for 27 years, until he was defeated by Frederick Chiluba’s Movement for Multi-Party Democracy in 1991. Our continent has lost a father, and a leader. The DA stands with the people of Zambia and wishes them strength during this time of mourning. Rest in peace, Kenneth Kaunda.”

It was an ahistorical narrative typical of the way the DA cherry-picks history to drive a contemporary agenda. And it’s eagerness to be on the record, in “the right way”, was no doubt driven by the same impulse. The manifest ignorance in the DA today, populated as it is with young, politically correct zealots, has produced an almost entirely ahistorical party.

There was, of course, no need to condemn the man, a statement of condolence is by necessity and design a humane and compassionate endeavour. Nevertheless, on a matter of principle, it would have been worth recording in a respectful manner, where the DA agreed and disagreed with Kaunda. At the very least, because if you do not, the party ran the risk of implicitly endorsing a whole range of policies and behaviours that would otherwise be abhorrent to its own values.

Certainly an opposition leader venerating a man who literally banned all opposition is a curious state of affairs. But it is a risk the DA seems to take at every opportunity.

That said, the party is very good at condolences. Search the DA website and, like most political parties, there are a raft of them. The majority are what you might expect – celebrities (Joe Mafela, Mandoza); artists and prominent intellectuals (Hugh Masekele; Adam Small); victims of tragedy at home and abroad (the families of the Somali bombings; Paris attacks; FNB stadium stampede) and so on.

Anyone with any vestige of prominence or public importance, in their own right or as a metaphor, is commemorated. But there are a number of condolences offered that, as with Kaunda, seem so devoid of the necessary context or consideration, the purpose can only have been political as opposed to compassionate, or some combination of the two.

“The DA joins fellow South Africans in sending condolences to the family of former Bophuthatswana leader, Lucas Manyane Mangope”, the DA in the North West said in January this year. It was another statement devoid of any reservation or context, something you would think essential in understanding someone as controversial as Mangope, and the role he played.

Elsewhere, the DA is careful to pay regular and often unqualified homage to fallen ANC and PAC icons and heroes. Not just the Winnie Madikizela-Mandela’s, Steve Biko’s and Chris Hani’s, the mainstays of the liberation pantheon, but its more humble servants and demigods too. The likes of Ronnie Mamoepa and Phillip Kgosana. Many of these are commemorated not just at the point of their passing but annually.

Remarkably, it does this often at the expense of its own heroes. Last year, Helen Suzman’s 100 year anniversary forced the party into some sort of, fairly limited public recognition (compared to the ANC’s year-long commemoration of OR Tambo, who also would have been 100 in 2017). Outside of that, the most famous members of the liberal pantheon – Van Zyl Slabbert, Eglin even Suzman herself – are generally left to fend for themselves, from beyond the mortal veil; if not forgotten entirely.

So adept is the DA at offering condolences, it has gone so far as to publically “offer its condolences” to the family of Clive Derby-Lewis, the man imprisoned for his role in Chris Hani’s assassination. Not that they are underserving of them, only, given how carefully the DA treads the political waters, this was exceptional indeed.

“Mr Derby-Lewis was an extremely controversial political figure who drove South Africa nearly to the brink of civil war through his actions. And I think it is moments like this that all South Africans reflect on our constitutional values of peace and democracy and that I hope is the lesson that we learnt from the Derby Lewis saga”, the DA’s James Selfe told the SABC.

With regards to its own family, the Democratic Alliance, the DA takes time and careful effort to commemorate internal tragedy. Many DA activists and members, some killed in terrible circumstances on the front line, are commemorated and remembered.

When former leader Helen Zille’s mother passed in 2015, Maimane would tell the press, “This was a woman who understood the principles of democracy and was the key dynamic influence in the premier’s life.”

It was an act of sympathy the party has extended to other political leaders too. “The DA extends our deepest condolences to the Mbeki family on the passing of Epainette Mbeki, mother of former President Thabo Mbeki”, Zille herself said in a June 2014 statement.

All of this said, then, it is difficult to understand why the Democratic Alliance issued no public statement of condolence for Judge Ramon Leon, father to former DA leader Tony Leon, when he passed away last weekend.

Here was an opportunity for the party to show some genuine public compassion and sympathy for Leon’s family and one of its own; as opposed to, say, the eagerness with which it was ready to commemorate Kenneth Kaunda or the bipartisan way it reached out to Thabo Mbeki, when he lost his mother. But, nothing.

Then again, perhaps it is not so difficult to understand. Ramon Leon’s passing, thanks to years of slander and poison spread by the ANC propaganda machine was unfortunately mired in controversy. For years the ANC had attacked Tony Leon for being the son of the ‘hanging’ judge who convicted and sentenced MK cadre, Andrew Zondo, to death for killing three women and two young children in the Amanzimtoti bombing of 23 December 1985. Having his father repeatedly slandered in this way was part of the price Tony Leon had to pay for standing up to the ANC government when it was at its most powerful and intolerant. This propaganda clearly had its effect however. In death Judge Leon was damned not only for this case but also for being involved in sentencing to death of another ANC martyr Solomon Mahlangu in 1978, something he had absolutely nothing to do with. This falsehood was spread far and wide not just on social media, a cesspit of untruth and defamation, but in the mainstream media as well, most notoriously, the Mail & Guardian.

And while some in the DA came to his defence, none of it was matched with any official public display of empathy from the party or attempt to define, in positive terms, who Ramon Leon was, what he stood for and why his loss was something to be recognised. Their anger seemed mostly directed at the quality of reporting. And Ramon Leon was no mere Judge, but a man who boasted a set of impeccable liberal credentials - a history worthy of DA acknowledgement in its own right.

It was left to Tony Leon himself to set them out. This from his tribute to his father (worth reading in full):

“My Dad who earned so many honours in his lifetime has been somewhat - by both the rabid revisionists who populate social media and spew forth their fake facts laced with genuine vitriol and others who have a duty to speak but choose to remain silent – dishonoured in death. 

But this was not entirely unknown to him during his life. For all his old-world sensibilities he often went against the grain. When most of the Durban society and legal profession of which he was a leading member, were staunch in their support of the racial and political status quo in the 1950’s and 1960’s, he and my late Mother were founding and then leading members of the Progressive Party. He was lead counsel in cases on behalf of the Cato Manor accused, transgressors of the Immorality Act, the Sabotage Act, and the myriad offences legislated under the apartheid order. In an old order, he was a young liberal with principled views and a firm moral compass, which he passed on to us to help find our own true Norths later on in our lives.”

This section too, worth noting:

“[In 2002] I received an anguished visit from James Selfe, then as now, DA executive chairman. He informed me, bleakly, that our funding situation was so dire that we could not meet that month’s salary bill for our political staff.  When I arrived in Durban, feeling the weight of a collapsing world on my shoulders, Dad –who could read my mood far better than all his well read books – asked me what was wrong, and I spilled out the tale of impending doom for the party which his younger son then led. He did two things, entirely typical of him: he poured us each a stiff whiskey and then took out his cheque book. “Right”, he said, “Here is a cheque for R250 000. The party can have R150 000 as an interest free loan to be paid back whenever it is in a position to do so. And the balance is my donation.”

Leon deals too with the Andrew Zondo case.

You would think, then, on the basis of that alone, here was a man worth celebrating. And a life worth commemorating publically. Not just that, but that the DA owed him a debt, in more ways than one. Lucas Mangope he was not. Search the various media stories on Leon’s passing and there is no comment at all from the DA that expresses sympathy or solidarity with his sons, Tony and Peter, both of whom have served the cause (Peter as an MPL and leader of the party in Gauteng.)

This is not to suggest there is none. No doubt, behind the scenes, many in the DA will have personally expressed their condolences. Yesterday, a memorial was held for Leon and you can be sure many in the DA will have attended. But this is about the DA’s public attitude to death and loss, and the manner in which it has generally turned bereavement into an entirely political business, one in which its own short term agenda tends to determine who or what it responds to and the terms in which it phrases those responses.

Perhaps the failure to publically acknowledge Ramon Leon was an oversight. That is not a good excuse, it speaks to lack of awareness and compassion, but it is at least an excuse. You get the sense though, based on how the DA treats this sorts of things, particularly when they are political, Ramon Leon was simply considered too politically sensitive to express any admiration or defence of publically. And that consideration trumped any genuine sorrow or grief those who knew Tony Leon might have felt. In brutal terms, his death was deemed a risk to the DA’s strategy; so, nothing was said.

If that is the case, it is both despicable and sad. And of those two things, it is the sadness that is the most important. What has become of the DA, that politics has come to usurp loyalty, solidarity, truth and sympathy, for one of its own? What is the point of any political party that will supress such things, in the name of expediency?

Kenneth Kaunda is still alive today. So the DA will have time to revise its statement. But it is doubtful the party will. On the rare occasion, such as with Clive Derby-Lewis, it seems brave enough to rise above politics and be humane but, for the most part, death is just a means to an end. All political parties tend to abuse death to one degree or another – the DA has become particularly dishonest with the way it rewrites history - but it is almost without precedent to find a political party that does so at the expense of its own family.

Gareth van Onselen is the Head of Politics and Governance at the South African Institute of Race Relations