Speech by Tony Leon to the DA Federal Congress, Port Elizabeth, Sunday, May 10 2015: “The Power of an Idea”

As I was saying at the last DA Congress I spoke at exactly eight years ago yesterday, before I disappeared from your midst-

All is not lost if courage remains. We can make South Africa great. We can fulfil the dream of freedom. We can do it if, together, we have the faith to trust, the courage to endure, and the resolution to build. So go forward, ever forward, in faith and courage.

The party which I was first elected to lead back in 1994 had fewer than 350 000 voters, just seven Members of Parliament,  and a few dozen city councillors. Thirteen years later when I stood down as the first leader of the Democratic Alliance, the party had 2 million voters, 57 Members of Parliament , 1100 municipal councillors and control of 20 municipalities.

I thought that was a fair legacy. Maar, soos ons se hier in Die Baai, kyk hoe lyk ons nou!

Today, as the second DA leader makes way for the third, she and you can be very proud that she hands over a party of  4 million voters, 102 MPs, 1656 Councillors, and in control of one Province and 28 municipalities.

I once noted that the success of any leader is the success of that leader’s successor. On that basis, I can say, without contradiction or dispute or second-guessing, this :-

The movement which Helen Zille, with your assistance, has built over the past eight years, is bigger, more united and today stands on more winning ground than we ever dared imagine or dream possible back in July 2000, fifteen years ago, when we founded this Party .

“Some among us” who ‘’Know Your DA”, to borrow two phrases, might think it a slightly risky step to invite me to reflect on the leadership of my successor, Helen Zille.

You might know that we have not always agreed on single issues, or on every personality or on each tactic. But then we do belong to a party whose first name is ‘Democratic’ and which is an ‘Alliance’ of different interests and many communities.

Since today is Sunday, it is perhaps apt to remember that the Bible enjoins us to build a “House of Many Mansions” in which there is room for everyone. So when there is debate and disagreement and even dispute, that is not a sign of weakness or failure, but signals success and self-confidence.

Many here today who have been on the journey with Helen can attest to her extraordinary achievements: Governing Cape Town as a the ‘world’s best Mayor’, the true ‘shining city under that famous mountain’; rescuing the Western Cape from the cesspit of corruption and mis-governance she inherited, into the best governed Province in South Africa.

And that’s not a consequence of party propaganda, but the objective assessment of the overwhelming measurements provided by the State and the lived reality of those of us, the Leon family included, fortunate to reside there.

But I have always believed in the true wisdom of the words offered to history by the great American President, Theodore Roosevelt. He said back in 1910, incidentally a decade before women had the vote in America, these immortal (and rather masculine) words:

There is no effort without error and shortcoming; but who actually strives to do the deeds… who spends himself in a worthy cause; who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

In celebrating Helen’s leadership, not even her mightiest opponent, and no one certainly in the Twittersphere, could ever accuse her of being one of ‘those cold and timid souls’!

But more than this, while it is relatively easy for a leader to deal with the triumphs of success, I want to turn for a moment to that much truer and sterner test which every leader must face: failure and defeat.

With all the successes on the scoreboard racked up by this Party and its outgoing leadership, it is easy to gloss over the real challenges, in the darkness of our recent past, which this party had to overcome. I want to remind you today of one of them.

Eighteen months after this Party was formed, in late 2001, we faced the severest test. The very idea of opposition was in the balance; floor-crossing, political treachery, a rigged judicial commission presided over by an ANC judge was set up to destroy us.

The siren calls of high office and cushy salaries were on offer by the ANC to some ‘cold and timid souls’ in the DA. Some jumped ship, double- crossed their voters and betrayed their mandates.

As the leader of the DA, I had to push back against this with all my might and with the great and loyal assistance of so many of you in this hall today. In the Western Cape legislature, I knew that the one person who had our corner covered and who could never be swayed by the temptation of retaining high office by sacrificing her ideals was the leader of the opposition there, Helen Zille.

But what bound her and me and so many of you together in those difficult times back then was not the assurance of future success, although that did come later on for those who kept our faith. It was the belief in the power of an idea. The power of an idea, so much greater than the idea of power. That great and unbroken thread continues today as the animating ideal of this Party still.

The first political leader of one of the original movements represented here today was an Eastern Cape politician named Dr. Jannie Steytler. Back in 1959 when he left the relative comfort of the official opposition United Party to found the breakaway Progressive Party, he lost his parliamentary seat two years later. But he offered us prophetic witness when he said-

In the end, South Africa will have to be governed the Progressive Party way, because in the end there is no other way that South Africa can be governed.

Dr. Steytler did not live to see his prophecy fulfilled. But when in Kempton Park, three decades later, the two mighty Nationalist movements of twentieth century South Africa- white National and African National, met to negotiate a democratic constitution they turned their backs, for a brief shining moment, on the disfiguring and exclusionary nationalisms of the past.

They chose the principle of non-racialism, the idea of universal democracy, the concept of a Bill of Rights and that belief expressed by Alan Paton that ‘man was not born to go on his belly before the state’. This was the bridge from a racist past to a promising future.

And let us say of those who are busy today breaking down that bridge that ‘they destroy better than they know’.

You are about to elect the third leader of the Democratic Alliance. He must adapt tactics and change strategies to grow this movement further, to reach out to more people, to offer rescue to poor communities in distress, taxpayers and property owners under siege, businesses in failure and so many people who have given up on hope that the promise of 1994 can ever be redeemed. He must honour the past, but he must not live in it.

But more than this, he must convince with the power of his conviction. He must tell the truth: nationalisms of whatever stripe divide and exclude and as history has proven, in the end, always fail. Again he must hoist aloft the banner of a non- racial rainbow nation, built on freedom, cemented by individual choice, anchored in a growing economy and always in service to the many, not the few.

He must rebuild that  constitutional bridge. And he must live as Helen Zille has led: that public office is a place of principled achievement, not a place to acquire wealth or a hideout for criminal misbehaviour.

Once again, in the circumstances history has placed us in, your next leader must speak to the great possibilities for all our futures, not appeal to the sum of all our fears. He must offer the prospectus of a brighter tomorrow not the failed message of a better yesterday.

These are great and challenging tasks, but also an opportunity seldom offered up by our young and turbulent democracy. Let us make sure he succeeds.