Memorable encounters with a legend in politics and life

2014-05-25 15:00

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Former DA leader Tony Leon has written his third book, Opposite Mandela. Carien du Plessis chats to him about it

How does it feel to be one of the elders of the DA?

I’ve got my opinions and I have the ­enchantment of distance. I’m of it but I’m not in it. So that does allow me to have a slightly wider view.

Party politics, which I was in for most of my life, is very narrow, because you have to advance the interests of the party. So I’m perhaps in a more comfortable position. I get paid to write a column, I write books. I won’t be going back to Parliament.

A lot of people call me now and want me back, but I say no, I have done that. Some of the personalities in the DA come and ask me questions or seek council and I’m happy to provide it when I can.

Why did you write this book?

Mandela was such a dazzling, powerful presence that a lot of people were quiet when they should have spoken out. He had a saintly aura, so actually it is democratically more healthy now than then. There are so many books about Mandela.

The lens that I could provide was Mandela through the eyes of the opposition.

He had a very unusual approach to his democratic opponents. Sometimes he was charming, sometimes he was cajoling, sometimes he was warm, sometimes distant. I was happily the recipient of much more warmth than iciness.

Did Mandela change during his presidency?

Mandela didn’t change when he became the president, he didn’t assume a grandeur or pomposity or cut himself off. He essentially was the same character and I think that was one of the reasons he was so successful as president.

You wrote about Mandela’s regard for Jacob Zuma, and how in 2002 he referred you to Zuma as the go-to guy for issues with the ANC...

I thought the old guy was out at lunch ­because there was no way Zuma would ­become [president].

He was outside the walls of power and influence, and Mandela said you must go and see JZ, he is the key person in the party and the government and I thought: what? Mandela had a lot of time for Zuma.

Did you write the book to fill in the gaps of last year’s Know Your DA campaign?

The book is to tell the true story of the relationship between Mandela and the opposition, which, uniquely in the DA, only I could write as the [former] front man.

The campaign was ridiculous because it claimed something that was demonstrably not true, and that was to place Mandela at the centre of the DA narrative.

In politics do you think it’s important to know when to go?

Yes I think it is, although I’m guilty ­because I stayed on 13 years. The party was involved in most of my time for a battle for survival.

When we won in Cape Town in 2006, I thought it was a good time to go. People used to say we will never manage without you, but they managed fine without me.

The waters close very quickly once a leader goes.

If you had to give Helen Zille any tips...

I don’t think she will take any! She marches to her own drum. But the scoreboard reflects she has done very well.

What was your favourite thing about Madiba?

Mandela offered me a seat in his Cabinet. I eventually had to tell him no. And the thing to me about Mandela is it didn’t change a jot his reaction to me or to my party, he didn’t react spurned or anything.

He understood why I [and the DA] couldn’t accept it. There might not have been a DA today if I had ­accepted it.

But he was exactly the same the day after I said no thank you than he was the day before.

It didn’t mean sometimes his temper couldn’t turn, but that constancy is the thing I admired most about Mandela.

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