Tony Leon is a major figure in South African politics. He became the leader of the Democratic Party in 1994, and over the next five years, he helped grow it into South Africa’s second largest party, making him Leader of the Opposition. He held this role for several years until 2007, keeping the ruling African National Congress (ANC) in check. During this time, he oversaw in 2000 the merging of the Democratic Party with the New National Party (NNP) into the Democratic Alliance (DA), which is South Africa’s current Opposition Party. After this, he was appointed South Africa’s Ambassador to Argentina, Uraguay, and Paraguay.

Q: Last month saw excellent regional election results for the DA. With the next general election in 2019, what should the DA do to try and better their regional results?

A: Well, they have a lot to do. Firstly, outside of the two big metros which they control – Cape Town and Port Elizabeth – they govern Johannesburg and Pretoria as a minority government, with the very eccentric support of the Economic Freedom Fighters, who really are their ideological enemies. So, I think simple but fundamental administrative and municipal matters, such as passing a budget and getting an integrated development plan through, will be a challenge.
Then, of course, there’s a heightened sense of expectation. One of the reasons for the very poor results for the ANC and the very good results for the DA, was because of what people felt was relatively poor delivery in ANC areas and relatively good delivery in the DA city of Cape Town, which was showcased as the model to emulate. The provinces of the Eastern Cape and Gauteng are controlled by the ANC, which has quite a lot of power of intervention in municipal government under the South African constitution, so there is an adversarial situation there.
Another problem is that there are hostile trade unions, who have an outsized role given the size of the public sector payroll. In each municipal administration, the trade unions are aligned to the ANC. So these are difficult channels to navigate, but as I said to my successor, Mmusi Maimane, these are the problems of success, and in my political experience, the problems of success are preferable to the problems of failure.
Of course, this is all at the level of city administration. The question you asked is what are they going to do to replicate this at a national level? Well, I think the big issue is what will happen to the 3 million who voted for the ANC in the 2014 general election, and simply did not pitch up to vote in the 2016 regional government elections. Will they stay away again in 2019, even though the ANC will not have the albatross of Jacob Zuma around their neck? Will they vote for an opposition party, such as the DA or the EFF? Or will they go back home to the ANC? These are the questions which we won’t know the answers to until South Africa votes again in 2019. So, the challenge is to translate this very impressive set of local results into an equally impressive national total next time. This is, as your question suggests, a challenge, but I think it can be met in the right set of circumstances.

Q: Do you think that this result will encourage the ANC to govern better? Could this mean less corruption, more growth, and a general upturn in South Africa’s fortunes?

A: We’ve seen some very clear and disturbing evidence that the ANC is actually, in its current form, doubling down on its previous worst aspects. You might have noticed in the last three weeks that there has been an unravelling at the centre in South Africa: there’s been a war of attrition launched indirectly by the Presidency against the Minister of Finance, and that is largely because the President was trying to protect his friends and cronies, who enjoy lucrative contracts with government companies. So that hardly seems to be an indication of turning a new leaf and going away from the old way of doing business. On the other hand, I think the message from the polls is that there is a democratic pushback. It took a long time to come to South Africa because people here have tended to vote on issues of identity, history, race, and so on. But certainly in these elections they appeared, either deliberately or through abstention, to vote on the issues rather than on identity. So I think the inescapable conclusion, as some leaders of the ANC have said, is that we need to reflect on this and do better. The evidence, as it so often is in South Africa, is very mixed.
Q: What do you think the future of the ANC is? Could we see an ANC split? Will Zuma step down or be pushed?
A: Well, there have been a series of splits in the ANC since 1994, none of which have become fundamental movements, with a couple of exceptions. When Mbeki was ousted in 2007, some very high profile leaders left the party to pursue the cause of what they thought was the Thabo Mbeki version of the ANC, called COPE, which did very well in the initial elections, but then imploded.
An exception is the Economic Freedom Fighters, who were formed on the basis of personal dissent, but it is rather dressed up as an ideological party. They have modestly increased their vote share, and clearly have viability, structure, and some degree of organisation. But I think that your question goes to the centre of the party. Will there be a real split, where the party fundamentally cleaves into its various components? Well, I think there are some early signs of that. The most obvious is the very public dissent of the South African Communist Party against the predations of Zuma and his colleagues. Whether there is an ideological basis for such a split, or whether it’s because of deep personal unhappiness and frustration with the leadership of Jacob Zuma, it is difficult to discern. But clearly, there is some rupture on that front. On the trade union front, there has been some rupture already, and some have already broken away from COSATU. So I think you are seeing a lot of fractures now. It seems that something has got to give, but I would not hazard a guess when and what form it will take. On Zuma, I think the idea of him going voluntarily is a little remote, because, in the words of one analyst, anybody who thinks that Jacob Zuma acts any way other than to further the advancement of his narrow interests is very naïve. The ANC have just lost the majority of metro expenditures, as well as hundreds of councillors, mayors, and speakers. Clearly, any leader only interested in helping his party would step down, but there’s no sign of that happening. That’s perhaps because he will not leave until he has a ‘get out of jail card’: he has over 700 corruption charges hanging over his head.

Q: Do you think that it was a mistake to merge the Democratic Party with the New National Party? Do you think that the New National Party’s apartheid pass will haunt the Democratic Alliance? Should Mmusi Maimane try to distance the party away from the NNP’s legacy?
A: I was the leader of the party who not only presided over that merger, but also made it happen. Whatever Mmusi Maimane does or doesn’t do, let me explain the rationale behind that.
In 1999, when the Democratic Party became the official opposition of South Africa and I was leader, we were spending most of our energy fighting other opposition parties, of which the second largest after us was the previous government of South Africa, the National Party. It seemed to me that the aim of the Democratic Alliance, which we subsequently formed with the NNP, was to get onto the main field of South African politics. We were against the ANC and competing for their votes, and it was necessary to close down the wall on the opposition front by uniting it.
The irony is that the National Party had the continuing loyalty of coloured voters, which accounts for 66% of the total votes in Cape Town. So in order to consolidate opposition control in the Western Cape, which we did with some difficulty under the DA banner from 2006 onwards, we had to have those voters identify with us, and the most straightforward way of doing it was to bring the National Party into the Democratic Party, and to merge them under the DA banner. Whatever Mmusi Maimane does or doesn’t do, the fact is that overwhelmingly, Afrikaans whites and coloureds now vote for the DA. Going back in history, the older whites and coloureds overwhelmingly voted for the NNP, so if you purge that from your party, you’re going to wipe out a significant part of your electoral base, and I don’t think any party or political leader would do that willingly.
Q: Which books would you recommend to someone my age?
A: Someone of your age could be interested in any number of subjects. There’s no one universal book that I could recommend. I would say this: keep reading and keep exploring. I’ve never stopped reading, and the more I read, the better I can write, and the more effortlessly I can speak.
If I chose one political biography, it would be Truman, by David McCullough. Harry Truman was the most extraordinary President, but underrated and seemingly unaccomplished. He said ‘not every reader is a leader, but every leader is a reader’. I wish it was true, although I don’t think Jacob Zuma is a great reader. I was a huge admirer of Tony Judt, who wrote a book called Postwar, which was the history of post-war Europe. It taught me so many lessons when I was Leader of the Opposition in South Africa, about different types of transitions, different types of political behaviour, and different types of cultural adaptation, all happening with Europe.
Q: What life lessons have you learnt over the course of your distinguished career?

A: I’ve learnt a lot. I suppose the most important thing I’ve learned is judgment. You can read everything you like in a book, and you can have a lot of academic credentials; you can even have a lot of money, but how do you apply judgement? Judgement obviously comes from experience, but also learning from both your failures and your successes. You’ve got to separate the personal from the professional, because the advice of your friends and family is not always in the interests of the organisation that you’re involved in.
The second thing is a lesson taught by Meyer Khan, which is very difficult to apply. He was the Chairman of South African Breweries, a hugely successful company which has now merged to form AB Inbev. . He said, always give way on issues of dignity and status, and always stand up on issues of principle.

The third thing is that for a lot of my life, I was titled. First, I was an MP, then I was Leader of the Opposition, then I was an Ambassador. These are irrelevant. Who are you, when you strip them away? What is the essence of you? You must retain and build this essence. Do people have a hinterland, a part of them which lies outside the public and professional word? To have passions which keep you going are incredibly important; activities which mean something to you. Also, you should have good relationships with your wife, your children, and your friends.
Q: What did you learn in your teenage years which you think has influenced your success?
A: I went to a relatively tough school in Natal called Kearsney College. I grew up in a nice, middle class, Jewish, liberal family, and suddenly, I was in this tough environment, where everyone was not from the same background as me. I learnt to mix, and I learnt to shape up and fit in. But at the same time, I learnt that if you have some sort of distinguishing characteristic, however much the environment encourages conformity, you must not suppress it. I’m very lucky that I was able to do that. So I learnt a lot of lessons about discipline, inner resourcefulness, and getting on with people.
Q: Is there anything that you wish you had done which you didn’t do when you were my age?
A: I wish I’d been more of a rebel. My acts of rebellion were small: I liked bunking off, smoking, and drinking, doing all of those illegal things which teenage boys do. You wanted to be what’s known in South African English as ‘a main oke’ – I suppose the translation is one of the crowd. I think I was pretty conformist in other ways: when I finished school, I went to the army, because that’s what everyone white matriculant did, and then I went to university. I became an attorney, not because I wanted to be one, but because my father was a judge and said that I had to choose a profession. I thought it was a very good idea at the time. I don’t necessarily regret those things, but a lot of them happened because fulfilling one set of expectations led to another set of expectations. I often wonder, if I’d broken away when I was 20 and said that I’d had enough and was going to live overseas, I wonder what the course my life would have been. I guess that it wasn’t really conformist to become a politician, but the professional part of my life was very much spent in the expectation of middle class white people, who grew up in bourgeoisie Johannesburg.
Q: Who is the most interesting person you’ve met and why?
A: Well, if you showed up in the jobs I had, you’d meet everyone from Putin to the Dalai Lama – people from both ends of the moral and political spectrum. I probably met a lot of the world’s contemporary political leaders between 1989 and recently, so there’s a very deep bench to choose from. I’m going to omit Nelson Mandela, although I wrote a book about him called Opposite Mandela, because I experienced him up close and personal, and on the opposition side too. The person who really shows how to overcome disadvantage was someone who I met before I went Parliament: he was a blind student who was black. He had overcome the most horrifying disadvantages: he had a poor family, and he’d lost his sight in an armed robbery. This guy sat with a Braille machine, transcribing lectures, and I helped to get him articles of clerkship. I didn’t hear from this guy for another 30 years, I had no idea what happened to him, and last year, I was asked to go onto a radio show with him. He had recently become a high court judge in the province of Gauteng: his name is now The Honourable Mr Justice Brian Mashile. It’s an extraordinary story, and he was perhaps the most impressive person I have met, and a lovely guy to talk to after all these years.
Another one is Shimon Peres [who sadly died on 28th September at the age of 93, after this interview was recorded]. He was a man of infinite curiosity and intellectual mastery. As a politician, I used to go to a lot international conferences, and I used to meet the good, great and pretty awful political leaders in other countries. Very rarely do you remember anything that anyone said a year or two later, because most speeches are so unmemorable. In 1991, I was in my thirties, I’d been an MP in South Africa for two years, and I was at a conference of parliamentarians in Israel. Shimon Peres, the Foreign Minister at the time, said something that was quite extraordinary. He said ‘you have a very simple choice in politics and in the world: you can either join the winning nations in the front two rows of the theatre, where the price of admission is quite expensive, you’ve got to give up things, you’ve got to do certain things, you’ve got to behave in a certain way – or you can join the overcrowded gallery, where the seats are so cheap, it’s called the third world, and it’s quite easy to get in, but it’s not so easy to get out, unless you start doing the things that are required for admission to the inner circle.’ I was just so struck by that metaphor, and I said to a member of the Knesset sitting next to me, ‘what an amazing grasp this Peres has’. And he replied, ‘let me tell you something, English is only his third language’, because he was Polish, Hebrew, and then English speaking. I don’t think that I’ve ever heard anyone speak with such metaphorical grace and meaning as he did. Many years later, I was invited to Israel to celebrate Peres’s 80th birthday party. Peres stood up in front of a thousand people and said, ‘I’ll tell you something. People ask me how do I go on? I’ve had a lot of defeats and I’ve had some successes. It’s very simple: you must believe in a cause that is greater than yourself’. And within five years, he was finally elected President of Israel, after an unsuccessful attempt. His grasp of history, his ability to articulate, and his sense of endurance were extraordinary.

• Leon is a former leader of the opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @TonyLeonSA