Tony Leon will step down as leader of the official opposition Democratic Alliance (DA) in May, he told reporters in Johannesburg on Sunday. He said 13 years in office is ”the absolute upper limit of effective leadership”.
”There is a danger, over time, that no matter how healthy or vigorous the internal workings of an organisation … that the identity and branding of the party will be almost completely absorbed into the identity and personality of its leader,” Leon said.
”This is not good for the health of the party — or the nation — and come to think of it, not particularly good for my health either!”
Leon will, however, remain an MP and continue writing a book he has been commissioned to publish.
He emphasised that he has no desire to influence the choice of his successor, and wants the DA to have good time to prepare for the election of its next leader. The DA will hold its federal congress in May next year.
”I wish to make it clear that I do not belong to this dismal school of political leadership. Our party must freely and democratically choose its leadership, without let or hindrance,” he said, adding that this is part of trusting one’s organisation.
Leon said: ”In the light of my commitment to the party and its internal stability, it was my intention to announce my decision closer to the congress in May 2007. However, speculation has already arisen –prematurely and publicly — in a different quarter.”
He did not wish for the DA and its supporters to be involved in a debate on his merits or in an argument regarding his continuance in office.
Leon said he made the decision to step down as leader four months ago, adding that the DA is almost unrecognisable from the ”shattered organisation” he was bequeathed after the 1994 election.
Asked about its appeal to black voters, Leon said the DA has more black support than two ”black” parties with seats in Parliament — the Azanian People’s Organisation and the Pan Africanist Congress of South Africa.
”South Africa needs to move to the point where people will vote on issues, not identity. We are not at that point. We must and will make sure we make a contribution to that goal.”
Leon singled out his involvement in helping to write the Constitution in 1993 and 1996 as a high point of his career. ”I enjoyed it. I now look at certain clauses and I know exactly how they got there.”
Meanwhile, the Congress of South African Trade Unions (Cosatu) welcomed Leon’s announcement, saying he would do best to go.
”Under his leadership the DA has shifted from a liberal ideology to an outright right-wing, conservative stance. He became a shop steward for big business and an enemy of the workers,” Cosatu spokesperson Patrick Craven said.
Also pleased at his departure was the leader of the Independent Democrats (ID), Patricia de Lille. She expects it will intensify the ongoing battle between conservative and liberal elements within the DA.
”It certainly seems from the recent DA elections in the Western Cape that the conservatives are taking the DA over by force. If this is the case, the ID — which has always maintained that the liberals have been aggressively sidelined by a [former] National Party conservative majority under Theuns Botha — will have been vindicated,” De Lille said.
Inkatha Freedom Party leader Mangosuthu Buthelezi, however, praised Leon as ”a staunch patriot to the tips of his fingers”.
His departure will ”leave a considerable gap in our Parliament and public life at a difficult time for our country”, Buthelezi said. ”He has a supple ability to marshal words and ideas to sustain his case and then use them to devastating effect against his political opponents; and that, importantly, is how he saw those on the opposing benches: as opponents, not enemies.”
Leon first became involved in politics in 1974 as an organiser for the liberal opposition Progressive Party. He qualified as an attorney at the University of the Witwatersrand and in 1986 was elected to leader of the opposition in the city council of Johannesburg.
Three years later he entered Parliament as an MP for the Democratic Party, the successor to the Progressive Party.
He was chairperson of the party’s commission on the Bill of Rights for four years and took part in the Convention for a Democratic South Africa before the landmark 1994 democratic elections.
As the New National Party crumbled towards the end of the 1990s, Leon became the high-profile and outspoken leader of the official opposition.
He has raised the hackles of many of his opponents and supporters during his tenure as DA leader.
Recently, he said in a speech at the Oxford Debating Union in London: ”Rich people are good for the environment: they have fewer children, they can afford cleaner, efficient technologies, they use resources more efficiently, they don’t chop down trees for firewood, they don’t kill wild animals for food and they have the time and the money to enjoy and protect nature.”
He also threatened this month 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.
The ID’s De Lille called Leon a ”party pooper” earlier in the year for his negative comments about the country’s ability to host the 2010 Soccer World Cup.
Leon being for the ”white man struggle” was a fabrication that emerged as part of the National Intelligence Agency’s hoax e-mail saga this year — involving e-mails declared false by the Inspector General of Intelligence, Zolile Ngcakani.
Regarding Leon’s record in Parliament, the Mail & Guardian‘s 2005 Cabinet report card remarked: ”To Leon’s credit, his party has fulfilled its opposition role in Parliament, being vocal on every issue despite the ruling party trying hard to pretend it does not exist.
It continued: ”Despite the emergence of the Independent Democrats and other parties pitching for the white, coloured and Indian vote, Leon has largely held the DA’s traditional support base. But the fact remains that it is a 13% political party that appears to have hit its ceiling.”
The DA’s image was tarnished last year when senior black MPs crossed the floor to the African National Congress.
”The DA has been content to portray the defectors as ambitious careerists solely concerned with using the ANC to climb the greasy pole. But there seems to have been little attempt to look inwards and acknowledge that the party’s culture is not welcoming to black recruits,” the M&G wrote.
The report said that DA supporters with a cul-de-sac view of minority-based politics were looking at Helen Zille, now DA mayor of Cape Town, as a potential leader.