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The failures of Tony Leon

As Quentin Crisp once remarked, rather than being the art of the possible, politics is actually the art of making the inevitable seem planned. So it was that Tony Leon’s announcement that he will soon retire as leader of the Democratic Alliance surprised only those people still hanging on to the forlorn hope that he might one day lead his party into the Union Buildings. Everyone else had come to accept, as he has now, that in his grand ambitions for power — and perhaps because of those ambitions — Tony Leon has failed.

The debate is not merely a failure of style — though the tone of his leadership has long been the heaviest millstone around his neck — but equally a failure of strategy and ideology.

Leon’s legacy is uncomplicated: he succumbed to Thabo Mbeki’s own grand strategy of commanding the centre-ground of South African politics by relinquishing his party’s proud liberal heritage, leading it into the cul-de-sac of conservatism during the very period when South Africa needed fundamental and rapid transformation. Its disastrous ‘fight back” campaign slogan positioned the DA as a party that stood against social change.

Had he embraced the idea that liberal values have an important but almost certainly minority role in a modern, pluralist, democratic society, and not allowed himself to be seduced by the groupthink of the small club of elitist white men around him who craved a far more ambitious strategy, he might still have contested the ANC’s domination of the centre-ground.

As liberalism in the United States and Europe faced difficult choices in the post-modern, post-cold war era of ‘non-ideology”, Leon’s contribution was to shift South African liberalism to the right. Unthinkingly, he pushed the neoliberal line of small government and the so-called free market, while complaining bitterly about black economic empowerment.

This was not attractive to most voters. During the last election, Leon set his party the target of a minimum of 20% of the popular vote. They got just more than 12%. They also set out to win substantial support from aspirant lower-middle class black voters. They failed in that too.

Leon is in fact the architect of the glass ceiling against which the DA continues to bang its head.

His defenders argue that he offered a ‘strong” opposition voice. This proposition deserves careful scrutiny, not so much for the purpose of drafting Leon’s political obituary, but to chart the future trajectory of opposition politics in South Africa. Now is an especially good time because there are a growing number of people within the ANC itself who are lamenting the feebleness of opposition, regretting the lack of influence that comes with its ineffectiveness and serial failures of strategy (a point that applies across the full range of the opposition, and not just to the DA).

Does ‘strong” opposition leadership necessarily require the unrelenting, unforgiving tenor of Leon’s rhetoric? Perhaps it does. But what sticks in the craw of many people, especially black South Africans, is the patronising, barely hidden contempt of his approach to South Africa’s new government.

The core problem is that Leon talks ‘down” to black people, as if they were servants rather than citizens, unable to escape the power relations and hierarchy of the apartheid era, and unable to project any sense of empathy with the brutal indignity of poverty.

Hence, as the DA’s own internal strategy document argues, a fundamental change is necessary to take advantage of growing disquiet within the ANC over corruption — and to speak to those ANC people who, at least in private, say: ‘I am glad that Helen Zille is the mayor because it will produce cleaner government for Cape Town.”

And what of the mayor of Cape Town? While there will be stiff opposition from the right of the DA, including the remnants of the Leon camp, Zille represents an opportunity for a fresh approach to opposition politics.

While Zille has chosen to project the ‘Thatcherite” Leon tone in front of the cameras and on public platforms, in her dealings with the ANC — especially the ANC in the Western Cape provincial government — she has won some respect and trust. Both she and Western Cape Premier Ebrahim Rasool deserve credit for honouring the constitutional principle of cooperative governance.

This watershed moment for the DA may well present opportunities as well as challenges to the ANC. Perhaps even something of the sense of common purpose that characterised the early years of the Mandela Parliament can be rediscovered.

I hope that Leon’s forthcoming resignation represents the start of a new phase in South African opposition politics, where intelligent voices — liberal and progressive, but no less demanding of accountability from the ANC government — replace the harsh reactionary voice that was the hallmark of the Leon years.

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