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Former opposition leader Tony Leon pushes South Africa’s hot buttons in new book

A smiling man raises his arms, surrounded by people waving miniature flags.
Tony Leon celebrates. at the Democratic Alliance’s final election rally held in Johannesburg, in April 2004. EFE-EPA/Kim Ludbrook

Tony Leon is the most prolific of all former leaders of the Democratic Alliance (DA), South Africa’s main opposition party, as befits the chair of a communications company.

In his latest and fifth book, Future Tense: Reflections on my Troubled Land, he comes across as articulate and persuasive.

The Democratic Alliance has, ever since its original founding as the Progressive Party in 1959, opposed injustices committed by the apartheid government. Today, its support is overwhelmingly from demographic minorities. Its current challenges include ensuring black people are more visible among its top leadership.

Recent turmoil included veteran party leader Helen Zille propelling Mmusi Maimane into the leadership of the party. The other was Tony Leon’s role in pressuring Maimane to resign after a series of DA tactical errors culminated in electoral losses in 2019.

The new and most useful content in his book is in chapters 2 and 3. They provide the first insider account of the ousting of Maimane, the party’s first black leader, in October 2019. His meteoric rise and that of former DA parliamentary leader Lindiwe Mazibuko, and the attempted recruitment of Mamphela Ramphele, the outspoken liberation struggle activist, were viewed as the DA expanding out of its former limits, to gain African voters. Their departures deflated such hopes.

Leon also delves into the accompanying turmoil within the DA because of the choices made by Zille, who has retained senior positions in the party and refused to relinquish power.

Leon mulls over the DA’s biggest challenge: “how to maintain its majority support among minorities, and increase its meagre voter share among the black majority” (page 21).

These remain unsolved conundrums for the party even after two decades of democracy. African voters comprise four-fifths of the electorate. For the DA to ever become the ruling party, even in a coalition, it must win over more than just racial minorities voters.

Strengths

Future Tense raises classical political issues that have been debated for over two centuries. One of the biggest is: what is the optimal blend of markets and the state in the economy?

A pragmatic – and not dogmatic – answer would surely be different between different countries, and between different times.

For example, during the 1950s, socialists like Jawaharlal Nehru in India and Gamal-Abdel Nasser in Egypt knew what to do for unemployment: the state should found steel mills and textile mills to employ tens of thousands of people.

But in 2021, an automated and robotic steel and textile mill typically each employ far fewer workers. Jobs now lie in tourism, computer coding, and digital industries such as designing websites. These require accomplished skill sets. With protracted unemployment standing at a horrific 42% (and reaching 93% in a small country town such as Touws Rivier) this is a hot button for South Africa.

Another hot button topic Leon touches on is the issue of affirmative action. He points to what he sees as a contradiction – the fact that the country’s Bill of Rights enshrines non-racialism, yet the government pursues a policy of affirmative action.

Leon points out that the mechanistic enforcement of affirmative action for demographic proportionality (black people are the majority) has the consequence that “Indian” police officers (from a demographic representing 3% of South Africans) are banned from being promoted to all top tiers where there are fewer than 34 posts. This is the opposite of a non-racial society where any individual can be promoted solely on merit.

Much of Future Tense is taken up with summarising two decades of media exposés of corruption in the African National Congress (ANC) government, and the descent into kleptocracy under Jacob Zuma’s presidency between May 2009 and January 2018. Leon ascribes the main cause to the ANC policy of cadre deployment. The practice makes sure that key government positions are held by party loyalists. This is similar to what the USA calls the “spoils system”. It’s been criticised as valuing party loyalty over ability, competence and probity.

Leon also ascribes the cause of corruption to the ANC removing the power of the Public Service Commission to promote civil servants solely on merit.

The weight of his arguments may be judged by the fact that the government is now publicly discussing restoring the remit of the Public Service Commission on this issue.

Future Tense also discusses foreign policy. The ANC’s historical allies were the Soviet Union (Russia) and Cuba. The US, the UK, Germany and other EU states remain South Africa’s major investment and trading partners. Leon, a former ambassador to Argentina, argues that the ANC’s cold war vintage rhetoric and stances do not succeed in optimally managing the complexities of these global realities.

Criticisms

Future Tense repeatedly reminds readers of how many dire predictions and prophecies of South Africa’s future have come a cropper.

The book offers its readers both the virtues of the liberal vision and its limitations. Virtues of the liberal vision include support for individual human rights, accepting doubt and uncertainties, and tolerating dissenting opinions. Limitations are that it sometimes opposes state interventions in the market to mitigate social injustices, and redressing some of the issues raised by identitarian politics.

Future Tense has more than a chapter on millionaire and billionaire emigration from South Africa. They are supposedly driven out mostly by state affirmative action, preferential procurement and other economic policies, as well as the crime wave. But it doesn’t have even one sentence about the immigration of two million working class Africans from other countries, and what this might tell us. Leon’s closeness to the plutocratic classes is matched by his distance from acquaintance with working class realities.

He gives an example of how affirmative action caused the emigration of one white University of Cape Town postdoctoral fellow. But he does not mention how the university has attracted top scholars from other African countries.

One chapter explicitly, and the book as a whole, is suffused with the perspectives and arguments of private wealth and investment bankers. But the contrasting arguments of the labour movement, including the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the biggest labour federation, and the research done by the NGOs supporting it, appear only in a sentence or two for dismissal.

Similarly, this book and the Democratic Alliance, which the author once led and is still associated with, give readers the impression that they judge South Africa’s foreign policy by the degree to which it complies with the foreign policy of the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation countries, and have a tin ear for the importance of pan-African empathies.

There is no nuanced perception that western powers selectively invoke human rights violations against their targeted regimes, while enthusiastically selling armaments to human rights violators they view as business friendly.

Future Tense is a good read, and should be on everyone’s bookshelf. This reviewer hopes that former South African president Thabo Mbeki and the incumbent Cyril Ramaphosa will not leave everything to their biographers, but will also write up their own memoirs. It is good to have both former presidents, as well as former leaders of the official opposition, tell us in their own words their perspectives on what happened.

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