Interview: Tony Leon

Alex | Oct 02, 2009
The Democratic Party leader talks about recent by-election success and answers critics who accuse it of moving to the right.

When the Progressive Party was first formed Verwoerd was so angry at the large amount of Jewish support for the party that he made a public broadcast warning Jews that their views had “not gone unnoticed”. But it was 35 years before its successor party chose a Jewish leader.
The whole thing is extremely ironic. The Progressives in their heyday always had an Afrikaner leader, such as Jan Steytler or Van Zyl Slabbert, but it never really won us large-scale Afrikaans-speaking support. Nowadays with a Jewish leader, we have a far deeper reach into the Afrikaans community than we ever had before. You actually hear some Afrikaners saying “the little Jew will fight for us”. Mind you, I don’t feel that my being Jewish is of much importance. But I was used to being in a minority at school and elsewhere. The Jews are a sort of liberal model. They make up less than 0.3 per cent of the population here, but they have got on without any favourable legislation: they have just been allowed freedom and have used it. Lots of Afrikaners nowadays see the Jewish Board of Deputies as a way that a minority can legitimately protect itself in the absence of unfair legal protection.

You took over as leader of the Democratic Party in May 1994 just as the party was making a huge shift. Until then it had always opposed a right-wing government from the left. Now it opposes a left-wing government from the centre.
I think people still underestimate how fundamental that positional change has been. Some never got used to it. Former DP MPs joined the ANC, including David Dalling who used to be on the far right of our party and who today is a great supporter of Winnie Mandela! They are lost souls: they kidded themselves that the ANC was a liberal democratic movement because it tried hard to talk that language during the Codesa negotiations as part of its charm offensive. Personally I could never buy the idea of the ANC as a liberal democratic movement, though there are some liberals within its broad church framework.

Isn’t that what people mean when they say that the new period of opposition to the ANC has suited your personality, that you are instinctively hostile to what the ANC represents?
That may be true. But you should not forget that the DP looked hard at the idea of working in government with the ANC, that we have come up with highly constructive proposals, on crime for example, and that we played an extremely significant role during the constitutional negotiations. Even then, though, it was absolutely clear that the ANC and the National Party were in alliance and would walk across the bridge finally without giving any thanks to the bridge builders. That process marginalised us until 1994. After that it was quite different. For the first two-and-a-half years we were really the only party in opposition. The NP and the Inkatha Freedom Party were both in government, the Pan Africanist Congress was torn apart by internal struggles and the Freedom Front was snuggling up to the ANC, which was leading it on with bogus promises of some sort of Afrikaner homeland. That left us all alone as the voice of Opposition.

So in a way it was easy for you?
It was never easy. Just seven of us had to carry the whole burden of opposition — it made tremendous calls on one in terms of sheer stamina. There were so few others and there was so much to do. Moreover it was very frustrating. Until 1997, our performance in Parliament found no echo either in a better poll showing or in by-elections. It is only now that we are beginning to reap the harvest. Mind you, the NP has begun to imitate us to the best of its ability. Under Marthinus van Schalkwyk their parliamentary performance has improved. The trouble is, no one believes them anymore.

There often seems to be a contrast between the good personal relations that you have with President Mandela and the ANC’s bitter response to you in Parliament.
Yes, for quite a while they even tried hard not to let me speak. President Mandela has great human warmth, a transcendent charm and generosity. He always shows humour even at the tensest moments. I get on very well with several ANC cabinet ministers — for example Tito Mboweni — and I think that a few of them have genuinely democratic views, though they do not have much weight within their party. Mandela came to my 40th birthday party and spoke very warmly, but I don’t think he is under any illusions. He told the story of how he had canvassed Houghton and signed up 163 ANC members during the local elections. Helen Suzman warned him that they were signing up because they liked him but that they would never vote for the ANC. Mandela laughed ruefully at the fact that they had indeed done very badly there. And that is the point: at the end of the day, the votes don’t go the same way as the smiles. Good personal relationships are a bonus in politics but they don’t necessarily win you anything. General Constand Viljoen placed far too much reliance on his good relations with the ANC: in the end he had little to show for it. Similarly, Roelf Meyer and F.W. de Klerk placed inordinate importance on their relationship with the ANC during the Codesa talks, but they too have nothing to show for it.

Some people look ahead to the age of Thabo Mbeki as a rather worrying prospect. How do you feel about it?
I share some of those worries. The stress on a racial Africanism, on the re-racialisation of South African society and now the urge to win a two-thirds majority and to overturn all manner of independent institutions — all seem to be part of the coming Mbeki scenario. But Thabo Mbeki is charming and intelligent and understands how the real world works. In some ways he is a political chameleon. So we will have to wait to see what the Mbeki era brings.

Your critics argue that the DP has changed, that the party has moved to the right.
That is nonsense. We have not changed our policies at all. The big change is in the situation, not in us. Until 1990 at least, the DP was an anti-apartheid electoral front which included everyone from liberal capitalists to socialists, but now the party is a straightforward liberal democratic party in its own right. Its entirely consistent liberal principles were always the best protection for the disenfranchised under apartheid and the same thing now applies to minorities under the new regime. The DP represented the excluded under apartheid and continues to represent the excluded now. But that does not mean that we only look to represent whites, Coloureds or Indians: most blacks are excluded under this regime too. The gatvol factor is felt just as much by blacks as by others. Today we speak up for black children without textbooks, black pensioners whose pensions don’t arrive, the disabled whose allowances don’t arrive either and for the vast mass of the unemployed who are being further disadvantaged by the labour laws the government is pushing through, forcing employers to cut more jobs.

But the recent gains you have made have largely been among whites. This has led to jibes that the DP is becoming the white man’s party, that even some former extreme right-wingers have joined you.
If you look at the recent polls you will see that we are moving up in the estimation of the other groups as well. But there is a more fundamental point here: we have to build on what we have got. It has taken us nearly 40 years from the foundation of the Progs in 1959 to breakthrough among Afrikaners, so that today we can win Brakpan, Roodeport, Rosettenville and so on. It took them 50 years to break out of their ethnic ghetto, but they are out of it now. I think you will find that it will not take blacks as long as that to break out of their colour-voting moulds. The point is that the DP always opposed apartheid and is happy that is gone. We do not want to reverse change or to cling on to old privileges. We accept democracy and always fought for it. It is true that we have had the odd person join us from the old right. This is actually a very positive thing. Such people are often among the most alienated and anomic elements in society. If the DP can give them a feeling of purpose within a democratic framework, then it is doing a very constructive thing.

All the talk about the DP joining alliances with other parties seems to have faded away.
We are perfectly willing to look at all our options. We are what we are — liberal democrats — but we are willing to look at alliances with other parties, in just the same way that we were willing to look extremely hard at the possibility of serving in the present government. In the end we could not do that because the terms were such that we would not have been able to keep speaking out on matters of liberal principle. But we have been willing to serve in the Western Cape coalition government where we are not tied down in this way and where we can continue to speak our minds. But it must be recognised that the ball game has changed and the DP is headed towards becoming the official Opposition. We are not interested in doing deals simply to save the National Party from inevitable decline.

Now that you are taking on new support, won’t the DP have to change to reflect it?
Well, sure we must reflect our voting base, but the key thing here is our principles. Those are simply not available for bargaining. People are welcome to join us as long as they subscribe to those principles. That said, we would certainly expect to see our new members moving up to be represented at all levels of the party.

Historically, parties with an English-speaking base such as the UP, NRP and Progressives felt that they needed Afrikaner leaders. But now the DP, with mainly English-speaking MPs and activists, is picking up large numbers of Afrikaans voters. What has changed?
The big thing is that Afrikaners feel desperately let down by their own leaders, by de Klerk and by Roelf Meyer and the rest. They noticed that the biggest document submitted by the NP at the constitutional negotiations was all about the rights and privileges of the leader of the opposition. That was the heart of the matter for the NP, looking after the old elite and letting its voters go hang. It is just the same now. Pik Botha left the NP as soon as it left the government but declares himself ready to re-join if only he can get back into government that way. This self-interested fascination with the gravy train has become extremely visible to Afrikaans voters. They are more willing to trust others as a result.

The story of white liberals in Africa has generally been one of people who fought against colonialism and racism and helped African nationalism to power only to be appalled at what those nationalists did with it. Do you feel there is a parallel here for the DP?
Liberalism is not instrumentalism. It was not just about effecting the transfer of powers; liberalism exists in its own right. During the constitutional negotiations, the ANC talked a liberal language of democracy and non-racism, but they were instrumentalist. They have abandoned some of that now. Similarly, the NP only came over to liberal principles very recently. Many Nats hardly seem to understand what they are.

Many people from Mozambique or Zimbabwe claim that African countries cannot escape going through a cultural revolution in the years following liberation, when all manner of foolish things are done.
The mistakes that Zimbabwe or Mozambique made in those early years came from wanting to do everything and all at once. The ANC is just the same. You have to burn your fingers before you learn. Doing everything and all at once is impossible and therefore you end up not doing a lot of things that you promised. And of course, if you only partially carry out your policies, you only get partial results, which is what has happened. The result is that a great deal of what this government does is typified by pretence. We have to pretend that our universities have somehow been “transformed”. We have to pretend that the doors of learning have been thrown open when we know that there are no textbooks. We have to pretend that there is a better life for all, when in fact more people are out of work, pensions are not being paid and so on. This partial application of policy is clearest of all with Gear. Unemployment is going up because two thirds of Gear is being ignored. We are not seeing either the privatisation or the increased labour flexibility that was promised. The price is even higher unemployment.

What about affirmative action?
Nothing that we have said seems to have annoyed the ANC more than that its affirmative-action policies amount to the re-racialisation of South African society, but it is true. I think the biggest problem with their sort of affirmative action is that they concentrate on the demand side when they really need to look at the supply side. They ask how many black managers there are in top management and are dissatisfied with the result. But look at the supply side, why not ask instead: how many black chartered accountants over the age of 30 are in senior positions in the organisations employing them? The answer is virtually every one. Once the supply is there, the market is very happy to promote them and you don’t need to pass any laws to make that happen. We must concentrate everything on the supply side. The fact is that, the ANC’s affirmative-action policy is an exercise in double-think. In theory they are determined to be non-racial but in practice they are equally determined not to be. More pretence in a word.

What are your relations like with the other Opposition parties?
Very good, without exception. I sit between Stanley Makgoba and Constand Viljoen and have excellent relations with both of them. They are men of quite outstanding integrity. But we also have good working relationships with the United Democratic Movement and IFP. We worked closely with all of them to fight Patricia de Lille’s expulsion from Parliament. The assault on her was an assault on the whole Opposition and her vindication was a great victory.

Isn’t the UDM the most interesting of these other Opposition parties?
I encouraged Roelf Meyer and Bantu Holomisa to do what they are doing and even helped them with fund-raising to some extent. We also had exploratory talks together, but all these came to a halt when Tertius Delport joined the DP: Roelf said we were taking on dubious allies. But the UDM has taken on Sifiso Nkabinde and the Mouthpiece Union, both a great deal more dubious than anyone in our ranks. In any case, I won’t have anyone dictating to us who should or should not be allowed to join our party. Similarly, if Bantu Holomisa wants to campaign for Winnie Mandela to be the deputy president, that is his business. But it is still not clear what they stand for. Many of the old civil servants in the Eastern Cape are backing Holomisa simply for gravy-train reasons. It is a bit the same with the IFP: we still do not know whether they want to be in the Opposition or in the government.

An ANC two-thirds majority at the next election?
An appalling prospect. They have given a clear indication that they want to tamper with the independence of the Reserve Bank, politicise the selection of judges and probably change the Constitution’s already unsatisfactory property clause. They would undoubtedly also remove provincial powers if the Opposition wins any provinces. They are just like the NP. Because the United Party kept on winning Natal, the government took power away from the provinces in order to render that victory meaningless.

Would you too like to change the Constitution?
We would like to get the balance right between freedom and equality. We don’t like the clause that prevents MPs from crossing the floor. And we would like the principle of “reasonableness” to be written into the affirmative-action clause. But we feel that the Constitution, whatever its flaws, was a result of years of negotiation between all South Africans and that it would be wise not to tamper with it, at least for a considerable while. So we are prepared to defend it as it is. We must not get back into the NP’s bad old habit of changing the Constitution whenever it suits the governing party.

Opinion polls suggest that you are more popular among whites than the NP leader, the first time that a DP leader has ever achieved such a position. You must be very pleased looking back over your four years as leader.
I am much more pleased with the party’s prospects coming off its low base in 1994. The figures you cite were unimaginable earlier because the majority of whites were resisting what some saw as a “total onslaught”. We are now in a new political universe. Our job is to build on our breakthrough to democracy in 1994 so as to achieve a true liberal democracy here. We are now picking up support so fast that it is organisationally very difficult to keep pace. What the DP has to do is to consolidate our hold among the minorities and then launch ourselves into making inroads among black voters. But we’d like to be as colour blind as possible about that — white votes and black votes are all the same now. That was the meaning of 1994.