Tony Leon is the most productive of all former leaders of the Democratic Alliance (DA), the main opposition party in South Africa, as befits the chairman of a communications company.
In his latest and fifth book, Future Tense: Reflections on my Troubled Land, he is articulate and convincing.
The Democratic Alliance has resisted the injustices of the apartheid government since it was founded as a progressive party in 1959. Most support today comes from demographic minorities. One of the current challenges is to ensure that black people are more visible at the top management level.
Recent riots included veteran party leader Helen Zille, who promoted Mmusi Maimane to the leadership of the party. The other was Tony Leon’s role in urging Maimane to resign after a series of tactical mistakes by prosecutors resulted in election losses in 2019.
The new and most useful content in his book can be found in chapters 2 and 3. They provide the first inside account of the overthrow of Maimane, the party’s first black leader, in October 2019. His meteoric rise and that of former DA parliamentarian Lindiwe Mazibuko and the attempt to recruit Mamphela Ramphele, the outspoken liberation struggle activist, were seen as the DA that was pushing its previous borders to attract African voters. Their departures have dashed such hopes.
Leon also addresses the related turmoil within the DA due to the decisions made by Zille, who retained senior positions in the party and refused to relinquish power.
Leon ponders the DA’s greatest challenge: “How can you maintain majority participation among minorities and increase the meager percentage of voters among the black majority?” (Page 21).
Even after two decades of democracy, these remain unsolved puzzles for the party. African voters make up four fifths of the electorate. For the DA to ever become the ruling party even in a coalition, it must win more than just voters from ethnic minorities.
Future Tense raises classic political questions that have been debated for over two centuries. One of the biggest is: What is the optimal mix of market and state in the economy?
A pragmatic – and not a dogmatic – answer would certainly be different between different countries and between different times.
In the 1950s, for example, socialists like Jawaharlal Nehru in India and Gamal-Abdel Nasser in Egypt knew what to do against unemployment: the state should set up steel and textile factories to employ tens of thousands of people.
In 2021, an automated steel and textile factory and robotics plant will typically each employ far fewer workers. Jobs today are in tourism, computer coding, and the digital industries like website design. These require experienced skills. With protracted unemployment of a terrible 42% (and 93% in a small country town like Touws Rivier) this is a hot button for South Africa.
Another hot topic that Leon brings up is the issue of positive action. He points to what he sees as a contradiction – the fact that the country’s Bill of Rights enshrines non-racism, but the government has a policy of positive action.
Leon points out that the mechanistic enforcement of positive action measures for demographic proportionality (the majority are black) means that “Indian” police officers (from a population representing 3% of South Africans) are not promoted to all top levels allowed There are fewer than 34 posts. This is the opposite of a non-racist society in which each individual can only be promoted out of merit.
Much of the future tense is taken up with the summary of two decades of media exposés about corruption in the government of the African National Congress (ANC) and the descent into the kleptocracy under Jacob Zuma’s presidency between May 2009 and January 2018. Leon credits the ANC with the main cause of cadre deployment policy. The practice ensures that important government positions are filled by party loyalists. This is similar to what the US calls the “loot system”. It has been criticized for assessing the party’s loyalty to skills, competencies and honesty.
Leon also attributes the cause of the corruption to the ANC, which removes the power of the Civil Service Commission to promote civil servants solely on merit.
The weight of his arguments can be measured by the fact that the government is now publicly discussing restoring the public service Commission’s remit on the matter.
Future Tense also discusses foreign policy. The ANC’s historical allies were the Soviet Union (Russia) and Cuba. The USA, Great Britain, Germany and other EU countries remain South Africa’s most important investment and trading partners. Leon, a former ambassador to Argentina, argues that the ANC’s rhetoric and stance during the Cold War failed to optimally handle the complexities of these global realities.
Future Tense repeatedly reminds readers of how many dire predictions and prophecies about the future of South Africa have become a cropper.
The book offers its readers both the virtues of the liberal vision and its limitations. The virtues of the liberal vision include supporting individual human rights, accepting doubts and uncertainties, and tolerating dissenting opinions. Limitations are that it is sometimes against government intervention in the market to mitigate social injustices and resolve some of the problems raised by identity politics.
Future Tense has more than one chapter on the emigration of millionaires and billionaires from South Africa. They are said to be primarily driven out by government action, preferential procurement and other economic policies, as well as the crime wave. But there isn’t even a sentence about the immigration of two million working class Africans from other countries and what that might tell us. Leon’s proximity to the plutocratic classes is achieved through his distance from acquaintance with the realities of the working class.
He gives an example of how positive action caused the emigration of a white postdoctoral fellow from the University of Cape Town. However, he does not mention how the university has attracted top scientists from other African countries.
One chapter and the entire book are expressly shaped by the perspectives and arguments of private wealth and investment bankers. However, the conflicting arguments of the labor movement, including the Congress of South African Trade Unions, the largest trade union federation, and investigations by the NGOs that support it, appear in only a sentence or two for dismissal.
Similarly, this book and the Democratic Alliance, which the author once led and with which he is still associated, convey the impression that they judge the foreign policy of South Africa by the extent to which it corresponds to the foreign policy of the countries of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. and have a tin ear for the importance of pan-African empathy.
There is no nuanced view that Western powers selectively assert human rights abuses against their target regimes while enthusiastically selling armaments to human rights abusers whom they consider business-friendly.
Future Tense is good read and should be on every bookshelf. This reviewer hopes former South African President Thabo Mbeki and incumbent Cyril Ramaphosa will not leave everything to their biographers but also write their own memoirs. It is good when both former presidents and former leaders of the official opposition tell us in their own words their perspectives on what happened.