Tony Leon's tribute to his father

Way Judge Ramon Leon is (mis)remembered reflects clash between 'noise of time' and 'whisper of history', says his son

My Father Ramon Nigel Leon (1925-2018) a tribute by his son, Tony.

Redhill Cemetery, Durban North – Thursday 19 April 2018.

Although my Father had a somewhat distant connection with his faith, there is a wonderful Jewish tradition that when someone dies, it is said “May his memory be a blessing” translated from Michal and Etai’s first language zikhrono livrakha

Now it is also true that when Peter and I were little boys growing up here in Durban, Dad would sometimes –on good days – introduce us ‘the blessings’. But the other day reminiscing about my misspent school days with my dear friend Steve du Toit at Ray and Jacquline’s home in Ridge Road, and how we often tried my Father’s patience –never his strong suit at the best of times – to breaking point, he must have often thought, in my case at least, that the ‘blessing’ was a very mixed one indeed.

But in fact my Father’s life, discipline and work, ethics, and his deep love for us and the causes and enthusiasms of his storied career are the richest blessings imaginable.

We are so deeply grateful for his well lived and distinguished life, his never ending support and his utter acceptance of his life and his lack of complaint or any bitterness, his twinkly smile, his kind eyes, his wise soul, and in the very end on Sunday , for his very peaceful end.

My Father was in so many ways of and from a different age and era. His courtly demeanour, his strict regard and insistence – inherited from his Mother Tama – on good manners and his deep and abiding sense of fairness and his demand that any good argument had to be based on facts and that, in one of his preferred sayings, “you follow the truth wherever it might lead you and however inconvenient”.

For my Father there were no computers or cell phones, and Twitter was something birds did. He lived a life to 93 unencumbered by the petty urgencies and distractions - and indeed advantages - of our digital, interconnected and wired age. When I challenged him on this recently (having ,let me admit, only acquired computer literacy at age of 50), that being digitally disconnected in the 21st Century, was akin to being functionally illiterate in the 20th century, he replied with his customary sang-froid ‘’well, so be it.”

Less than three weeks ago, we arranged a small 93rd birthday lunch for him at his favourite restaurant in Umhlanga, attended as well by his dear friends Bill Lambert and Mike and Phillida Ellis. Many of you here today were also with us for his much larger 90th birthday celebration at the same venue.

For those who knew him in his last days he had become very quiet, even withdrawn. Michal said ‘he was in the waiting room’. But on the drive from the Berea to the restaurant, I asked Dad two questions.

I asked him how he felt to have exceeded the life span of his Dad, our beloved Grandpa Jack, who lived to 92, and this led to a gentle argument about how old Grandpa was when he died, and indeed the age of his dear sister Valerie, who is still going at 97. Good genes you see, even though he got both of their ages wrong.

The second question I asked Dad, who in so many ways did not dwell on the past nor introspect too much on his life and its pinnacles and precipices was this one: “Dad, looking back on your long life, what do you make of it all and what you did in it.”

And for a voice which in childhood was sometimes very stern and booming and even forbidding, he responded with quiet gentility: “Well, I tried my best.”

Better than best, actually Dad. You lived as you led, you powered us along with the power of your own splendid examples, and I would like to highlight just a few of them this morning.

Appropriate to his age and learning, Dad, who had cultivated and old-fashioned tastes, thought that the best two novelists ever (and each of their volumes, reread by him many times over are in his bookshelves) were Charles Dickens and Graham Greene.

I am sure that Dad had never heard of a rather good, though more modern, novelist Julian Barnes. But in his recent book of the same title, Barnes writes of “The whisper of history heard above the noise of time.”

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.

“The noise of time” today leaves all this unmentioned. The cacophony jammed with today’s virtue-signallers cannot of course reflect the ground breaking judgments he gave later from the bench to roll back the oppressive state of emergency and free detainees and allow the media to shed its light in the darkest of times. But the ‘whisper of history’ reflects and records it all.

‘The noise of time’ today mentions only that Judges, regardless of their distinction, heedless of their judgments, un-remembering of their humanity, appointed before 1994 were ‘apartheid judges’. ‘The noise of time’ cannot in fact record how so many of today’s rulers and panjandrums in this country relied on some of those judges and some of those courts for possible justice in truly impossible times.

But on the question of how liberal lawyers accepted judicial appointments, my Father believed the boundaries of the system could and should be pushed, and he did a great deal of that pushing and shoving from the bench of the Natal Provincial Division.

Of my Father’s judicial colleagues, from the great to the other sort, the two who were his closest friends and who were appointed just after his own elevation to the Bench were Douglas Shearer and John Didcott, both now sadly passed.

For all ‘the noise of time’ today from the armchair heroes of retrospective revisionism, this is what ‘the whisper of history’ records of John Didcott’s typical forthright view of it all way back in 1982:

“The idea that by working within a system one ‘lends respectability to it’, and thus strengthens it, is fast becoming a cliché. It is a peculiarly modern one, what is more. Human society would have made little progress had that view prevailed throughout history. If one is too fastidious to soil one’s cuffs one cannot change society. To change that one must remain part of it, involved in it, even at the risk of being called a collaborator.”

And indeed while my Father strained to find in favour of the liberty of the individual, out of hundreds –perhaps thousands, of criminal cases he tried, he imposed the mandatory death sentence very rarely, in perhaps seven cases, and always with deep anguish. That is why the ‘whisper of history’ records that as soon as he was freed from the constraints of judicial office, he became a leading abolitionist.

But since my Father was a great believer in the advice which Oliver Cromwell gave to his portrait painter Peter Lely, “I would like my portrait to depict me with pimples, warts and everything”, he would certainly accept criticism and a revisiting of his more controversial judgments.

And he and I did revisit the Andrew Zondo case in the pages of my book which also records a long discussion I had on the same matter with Nelson Mandela in the drawing room in his Houghton home, in September 1996 (as recorded in Opposite Mandela):

“Mandela read the judgment very carefully and in silence. After he had finished reading, I suggested that while I hardly expected him to agree with it, the judgment and my Father’s entire judicial record hardly portrayed him as an ‘apartheid hanging judge’ as some had recently suggested.

“‘There is no need to belabour the point’, Mandela said. ‘Once you start attacking the integrity of individuals there is indeed no end of the matter. Anyway, the government’s view of Judge Leon is quite different from that of one or two individuals’. He reminded me that, only a year or so before, the government had chosen my father to chair a high-level commission of enquiry into the Vaal Reefs Mining disaster and that its wide ranging report was a ‘model’ on which the state intended to base legislation for an overhaul of mining health and safety matters (it did so the following year).”

And indeed Mandela and my Father sat happily next to each other at my 40th birthday a few months later.

On this issue ‘the noise of time ‘has been in recent overdrive, except with a new twist: these past days - during our family mourning period, the Mail & Guardian and all the titles of Independent Newspapers - managed the feat of placing my Father in another court in which he never sat, delivering a judgment he never gave to an accused person he never tried! The Mail and Guardian at least, after doubling down on its initial inaccuracy, did eventually apologise and thanks to three staunch pillars of my Dad’s true memory, John Steenhuizen, James Myburgh and Douglas Gibson, for achieving that.

My Father who was always far less combative than me would let it all pass, and say ‘well, let them read the judgment and then decide’. But that is a bit of a stretch when no such judgment was ever rendered!

But so much for law and its controversies. Dad had a rich hinterland beyond the Bar and the Bench. He had a long and distinguished association with his alma mater, the University of Kwa Zulu Natal and served as its Chancellor; he loved opera and operetta and to sing along, horseracing and his great sporting prowess. This found a later outlet in idle moments, when on judicial duty in Swaziland and Lesotho, he and his colleagues would draw up competing lists of the best South African fantasy cricket X1 across all players and generations.  

One of his passions was politics and in many ways, I think, he was a frustrated politician. He was hugely supportive of my own career in those stormy waters. In that regard, and inhabiting as he did a small social echo-chamber in Durban, he offered an unintended insight into the 1994 historic elections here.

He was deeply upset when in that transformative poll the Democratic Party in which both his sons were so involved, had done so badly.

When he called me as the results became known, he said “I cannot believe how badly we did, Tony, because everyone I know in Durban voted DP!”

“Well, Dad,” I responded, “that is the point isn’t it. You know about 100 people, and this time 20 million went to vote.”

But when the chips were down and the odds were stacked against the Party which I went onto lead, my Dad was always there for me and for the cause. Just one example of this which I have never forgotten and perhaps some in today’s Party should learn about. In 2002, the Democratic Alliance was in dire straits: its partners from the NNP had deserted to make common cause with the ANC; a trumped up funding scandal had been blown into a full scale judicial commission of enquiry under an ANC-aligned judge, its voters were insecure and most significantly its funders were deserting it in droves. The Yiddish expression “erev machulah” (‘eve of bankruptcy’) certainly applied in all respects.

One Friday afternoon in those hard days, I was en route for some party events in Durban where an agreeable add-on was to stay with Dad at his lovely apartment in Faringdon in Cato Road. Just before I left for Cape Town airport, 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.”

That generosity in fact and of his spirit was so utterly defining of him. And many of here and others far away also were touched by that.

But a life in politics allows me to bring in my Father’s great love and life partner, my late stepmother Jacqueline, mother of Alan and Nigel. She was the pillar to Ray in his hard times and his partner in high moments and to me also throughout my time in public life.

She brought out the best in Dad and cherished him and chivvied him along, lamenting his untidiness and obsessive over-punctuality and rekindling his love of bridge, his delight in travel, and furnishing their homes with the love and warmth and the good taste she exuded.

And Dad’s deep love for her extended right through her family - to the Mauritian brothers and sisters, the Downing children and grandchildren and of course to Marie Claude and all the Davidsons. And may I add that all of them returned his affection, to the very end, one hundred fold.

Twenty two years ago, just after Jacqueline died so early and in Dad’s view needlessly, Michal entered my life in 1996. On her first visit to him in Durban, she recalls how totally accepting he was of her, of Noa and Etai, and how he enveloped them with warmth and love.

During a very public altercation I had with the late Winnie Madikizela Mandela in 1998, she responded ominously that I ‘’was obviously scared of strong women.” I thought to reply (but did not), “you should speak to my Dad - he married two of them.” As would I in due course!

Let me conclude by reading portion of a note I received from my friend Colette Pudifin (now Martin) from faraway Perth, Western Australia, and the daughter of close friends of Ray and Jacqueline.

"I really loved your Dad. He left a huge impression on the young me- a stern but immensely kind and caring man. I will never forget his rendition of “Trees” by Paul Robeson, the Ridge Road House with its swimming pool, the apartment near St Augustine’s. I remember it all as if it were yesterday. I grieve with you Tony –shut the bastards out. I recall so strongly a moment when Ramon (‘Judge Leon’ as I used to call him) and I somehow got to know each other even before I met you, on a walk during a weekend away at Midmar Dam. We were talking and I remember feeling at ease with this important man-he neither intimidated me nor did he make me feel any less for being young and naïve. Strength to you and Peter and Michal at this time. Rest in peace dear Ramon."

We have cremated my Father’s remains privately, and this here is our public tribute to him. We mourn his passing, give blessings for his great and long life, and although we now journey onward without him, his giant shadow will continue to guide us, comfort us, and to shelter us.

And as I always said to him when we spoke on the phone, I can repeat one final time now: ‘Thanks, Dad. God Bless. Fond Love.’