A vital legacy: space for dissent

2008-08-23 00:00

Tony Leon, former leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA), has the unenviable distinction of being one of South Africa’s least popular politicians. During his 13 years as leader, Leon became a byword for abrasiveness combined with, according to his critics in the governing African National Congress (ANC) and the media, undertones of arrogance and racial superiority.

Leon will doubtless enrage another slew of people, including those in his own party, with his autobiography, the appositely named On The Contrary. But Leon’s uncanny ability to get under one’s skin should not distract from his achievements.

His most cited feat, the growth of the DA from a minuscule party to the official opposition commanding some 13% of the vote, was by no means as remarkable as is made out. It was accomplished by simply cannibalising the right-wing Afrikaner vote that resided in the now defunct National Party.

The ideological indigestion that followed continues to cause the DA heartburn. One consequence of it, still today, is a general revulsion among black voters towards the DA, which shows the limitations of Leon’s leadership.

On the flip side, what he did do was arguably more important than just garnering votes. For Leon propagated in the barren South African soil a hardier strain of political liberalism than any of the earlier cultivars.

He got liberalism to root outside the wealthy enclaves to which it mostly had been confined. Crucially, Leon managed to prune it of the white, Anglo-Jewish cringe factor that made liberals excessively sensitive to black frost — ANC accusations of Eurocentrism, racism, a lack of patriotism and a failure to identify with Africa.

He notes that after 1994 a “dull patina of political correctness settled heavily upon SA”. Tiptoeing politeness was not something that the combative Leon could or would accept. “Neither our history nor our future can be reduced to a single narrative comprising permanent heroes and implacable villains,” writes Leon.

These are uncertain times in South Africa. There is nervousness about the likely shape of the post-Mbeki landscape — a predictable response given the fragility of a young democracy and the threatening mien of his likely successor, Jacob Zuma, towards the judiciary, the rule of law and the media.

South Africans are in the throes of one of their periodic scrambles for the fire exits. As confidence wanes and the lure of more stable societies waxes, those able to move start imagining even dreary places like New Zealand an attractive alternative.

An intriguing development is that the desire to emigrate is no longer the preserve of whites, Indians and, to a lesser extent, coloureds. Polls show that around 60% of black Africans are sufficiently peeved to consider leaving.

Although this is an unhappy statistic, it does show a thawing of racially entrenched certainties.

Increasingly, young whites are unabashed about their African identity and their right to be critically engaged. Similarly, there are growing numbers of independent-minded blacks who treat with derision ANC attempts to prescribe the correct political and cultural attributes of a post-colonial African.

After independence in Zimbabwe there was soon no room for dissent. Leon quotes Peter Godwin’s eloquent description of how Robert Mugabe closed down the political space of minorities: “We had broken the unspoken ethnic contract. We had tried to act like citizens, instead of expatriates, here on sufferance.”

Whatever our present woes, in South Africa the trend is in the opposite direction, towards the vocal reclaiming of political space by minorities and opposition groups. Although Leon no longer leads the DA, this is happening to a significant degree because of the “muscular liberalism” that he, among others, fearlessly espoused.

• Tony Leon’s On The Contrary: Leading the Opposition in a Democratic South Africa is published by Jonathan Ball.

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