Tony Leon: 'Opposition' still to take root in SA

The concept of opposition has yet to take root in South Africa 13 years after the birth of multiracial democracy, says the outgoing leader of the main opposition Democratic Alliance (DA).

Tony Leon’s main task in eight years as official opposition leader was “to get the very concept itself accepted on the stony soil of South African ground”.

“It is a very misunderstood concept in South Africa and on the continent,” he added in an interview with Agence France-Presse.

Leon, who has been brande d elitist and racist by sections of the ruling African National Congress (ANC) for his vociferous opposition on issues such as crime, affirmative action and Aids, believes South Africa’s government shares a contempt for the opposition with that of neighbouring Zimbabwe.

Even though South Africa enjoys free speech and political campaigning, elements of Mugabe’s style of government could creep in, said Leon (50), whose successor will be chosen at a party conference this weekend.

“There are intimations. I don’t think at the moment our government is threatened at the polls nationally like [Zimbabwean President Robert] Mugabe is. One hopes that when they are ... that they will behave not like Mugabe.”

In Zimbabwe, a crackdown recently saw opposition leader Morgan Tsvangirai and other members of the Movement for Democratic Change beaten and detained by security forces.

It would be foolish, Leon said, to dismiss warnings about the “Zanufication” of South Africa, referring to Zimbabwe’s ruling Zanu-PF.

A particular cause for concern was last year’s failed attempt by the ANC-governed Western Cape province to grab power from the DA-led municipality of Cape Town by changing the city’s governance system. Such attempts will intensify, Leon predicted, as the ANC believes it has a “God-given right to rule everything, everywhere”.

Much of the ANC’s opposition intolerance should be blamed on President Thabo Mbeki, said Leon.

His predecessor, Nelson Mandela, “used to introduce me to the pope or the queen and say, ‘This is the man who gives me all the trouble,’ and then he would slap me on the back and laugh. [Mbeki] has never been as comfortable with open discourse and public debate, or private debate for that matter.”

Mbeki and Leon had a strained relationship. They never had an official private meeting in their relative roles as president and leader of the opposition.

Leon expressed concern that a grouping pursuing African nationalism in the ANC is gaining the upper hand. “There is a contradiction between the national democratic revolution promoting an African agenda on the one hand and non-racial, democratic inclusiveness on the other.”

The contradictions are apparent in the public service where demands for racial transformation are given precedence over service delivery.

More than a million whites have left the country since 1994, many taking scarce skills with them.

Leon—whose style earned him the nickname “Chihuahua”—has led the DA since 2000, and its predecessor, the Democratic Party, from 1994. He believes the DA managed to build an effective opposition after the end of apartheid in 1994, despite its limited black support.

Under his watch, the party grew from the fifth largest in Parliament, with seven MPs, to the main opposition with 57 MPs and 1 100 councillors. However, it is still dwarfed by the ANC, which won almost 70% of votes at the 2004 general election against 12% for the DA.

Leon, a lawyer by training, is writing a book about his political career but has yet to decide on his long-term future. He will remain an MP until 2009.

“I have got very mixed feelings [about resigning] because so much of my life has gone into building this party,” he said. “But if you truly believe and have faith in what you do you must know when to let go.”—Sapa-AFP

On Friday, read the Mail & Guardian newspaper’s in-depth interview with Tony Leon

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