Tony Leon has threatened to launch a libel lawsuit against a British historian who raised questions about his proximity to the apartheid intelligence establishment during his time as a conscript in the defence force.
James Sanders, a London-based researcher, has sent Leon draft pages of his forthcoming book, Apartheid’s Friends: The Rise and Fall of South Africa’s Secret Service, which examine three episodes in the DA leader’s career at the defence force magazine Paratus.
The first was an article by Leon extolling the virtues of the detention barracks at Voortrekkerhoogte where soldiers judged delinquent were imprisoned. “The truth and nothing but the truth about DB … we return soldiers, not broken men to the world,” it said. The article was produced, Sanders notes, with the assistance of Brigadier PW van der Westhuizen, who became chief of staff intelligence in the Military Intelligence Division (MID).
Sanders describes Van der Westhuizen as “one of the most mysterious and powerful men in South African intelligence history” and speculates that something bad must have happened at the detention barracks which needed ameliorating coverage.
Leon responded in a letter by comparing Sanders to David Irving, the Holocaust denialist, and calling his assessment of this incident “way off beam”. He had never met Van der Westhuizen, he said.
The article was simply a “clumsy attempt at some form of glastnost [sic] … to show some degree of faux openness”, Leon wrote.
The second “adventure” called into question by Sanders is a trip Leon made to the July 1976 bicenntenial celebrations of the United States aboard the warship SAS President Kruger. It would seem likely, he suggests, that anyone going on such a trip just a few weeks after the Soweto uprising would have been “closely vetted” by military intelligence’s department of information.
Leon responded that he was chosen for the trip at 24 hours notice because he was the most qualified photojournalist for the job, and there was no accommodation available on the ship for an officer.
Finally Sanders examines Leon’s assignment in November 1976 to cover the defence force’s role in “independence” celebrations in the Transkei, which Leon laughs off.
The draft, Leon wrote to Sanders “[in keeping with other pieces you have written about me] is encased by a carapace of prejudice and built on a foundation of half-truths and lies”.
Leon’s letter was followed by a warning from his attorneys, Minde Schapiro and Smith, to Sanders’s publishers, John Murray, that Leon might choose to sue.
Sanders went on to make some minor changes and included Leon’s explanations.“My solicitors laughed when they saw the letter,” he told the Mail & Guardian, “it is just ludicrous bullying … there is nothing actionable in what I wrote. If anything, comparing me to David Irving is libellous.”
Leon declined to comment.