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Stretching a career in politics

Submitted by on Wednesday, 22 October 2008No Comment
Stretching a career in politics

Politican, former leader of the opposition, and author Tony Leon tells DAVID GEMMELL how he is handling changes in and out of parliament.

You have just made an hour long speech without notes and you never hesitated or were at a loss for words, which is very impressive. Do you always speak without notes?

I went to Harvard University last year as a Fellow and I fancied myself as an orator, I mean I was in parliament – although that’s no guarantee, some people in parliament don’t speak at all well – and I was very good at public speaking at school, but the speakers at Harvard were amazing and made me look quite ordinary. I saw Theodore Sorenson, legendary speechwriter and adviser to President John F. Kennedy, do a fantastic speech. He stood up without a note in his hand and he was 85 and he was brilliant. So I decided that when I got back to SA I was going to drop the notes. Now, when you are in Parliament and you are time-limited, you need a script because you need to get certain stuff across. Well I determined to stop using notes – so I have worked at it.

You do it very well. What time does your day start?

I usually go to bed at midnight so I prefer to get up later, but I find as I get older I sleep less. I actually adjust my timetable to what I’m doing – if I’m travelling, or whatever – I don’t have cast iron rules. Nelson Mandela often used to summons me for meetings at six in the morning, because he used to go to bed at about nine. Things of course changed under Mbeki (smiles).

Apparently you had heart trouble when you were younger. Tell me about that.

Well I come from a long history of coronary artery disease – my mother, my grandmother and my grandmother’s sisters all had heart trouble. What happened was I was going to play tennis at Wits – I was 28 years old – and I suddenly had this crushing pain in my chest. I thought I had flu. I mean there was nothing wrong with me except flat feet (smiles). Well after one thing and another, it turned out I had had a heart attack. Afterwards I sort of shrugged it off and forgot about it. I used to smoke – I stopped doing that. But later I started getting chest pains when I went to gym and in December 1998 I had a quadruple bypass. But here I am (smiles).

Are you on medication?

I take Ecotrim and I take Lipitor.

You don’t seem to carry any weight how carefully do you watch your diet?

I’m not as good as I should be. I of course work on the expedient that my medication is looking after me (laughs). But I am not outrageous; while I’m not fanatically careful. I do go to gym about four or five times a week, where I try and exercise quite vigorously. I usually do half-an-hour on the treadmill and I have a personal trainer. The advantage of which is that, because I pay for it (laughs), it forces me to pitch up and do the exercises. We do upper body one day and lower body the next, that sort of thing.

What would your death row meal be?

Oh well, then being careful wouldn’t matter… I would definitely have the world’s best cooked hamburger, chips, fried onions with salad and a thousand island dressing, followed by chocolate cake. It has to be sponge chocolate cake – I like proper chocolate cake like you buy at Woolworths.

Do you have a sweet tooth?

Yes – but one thing I am reasonably good at – is not buying chocolate and sweets. But if you put a slab in front of me I would eat it.

For your recently published memoirs, ‘On the Contrary; Leading the opposition in the New South Africa,’ had you always kept notes?

Well you only get one chance to participate in history – especially in things like the transition and the negotiations at Kempton Park – so I did keep notes. Also my secretary cut every single newspaper article, whether I was defamed or praised, which is a nice record. And then fortunately about five years ago, one of my more ‘technophilic,’ people said I had to write a weekly letter on the web just like Mbeki did, and so I have a record of what I thought were the most important political events. A lot of the book was done along the way.

How did you keep your cool when people used to abuse you or heckle you, but you thought you were right?

Well I didn’t always keep my cool (laughs). I used to get very angry with Thabo Mbeki. But the real thing was I realised there were a lot of people outside of the house who would be convinced and that I was also speaking to them. I learnt this from a Dutch politician who said, ‘The worst thing about liberal politicians is they assume their job in life is to win the affection of the opposition, but their real job is to win the respect of their voters’. I realised I was never going to convince the government to our way of thinking.

Did you form any friendships with members of the ANC?

Tito came to my fortieth birthday and my wedding, but it changed a bit when he became governor of the Reserve Bank. But under Mbeki it was very career-limiting for anyone in the ANC to be friendly with me (laughs).

What do you do for holidays?

My idea of a holiday is to lie on the beach, read books and do very little; but my wife, Michal has a completely different idea. She thinks that we have to do something interesting. So we travel a bit. Our last holiday we did Northern California – the wine lands; not nearly as good as the Cape wine lands – and then we went to Las Vegas which was a nightmare. I wouldn’t go there again. My colleague Douglas Gibson is the ambassador to Thailand and our next holiday which is next Easter, we are going to spend with them. There you can do interesting things and go to the beach.

Are you a good tourist?

Not as good as I should be. I get a bit bored and restless. We went to Tuscany and I used to like to sit and read the International Herald with a nice cup of espresso and look at the crowd, but Michal is a very determined tourist (laughs).

What books do you read?

Well I’m ploughing through Richard Nixon by Conrad Black – which amazingly he wrote while en route to jail – he now is in jail. I do like biographies and history. There is a British historian called Tony Judt, who wrote a book called, ‘Postwar; A history of Europe Since 1945′ – I gave it to Mbeki last year as a peace offering, but I don’t think he read it – maybe he will read it now (smiles).

Do you have any interesting hobbies?

No and I’d better develop some or else I am going to drive my wife mad in my retirement. I’d like to take up sailing or golf. But I have bad hand/ eye co-ordination. However if you can still play golf despite that, then I would like to because I’ve noticed how much pleasure people derive from the game. And as for sailing, my stepfather taught me and my brother to sail, so that might be fun to take up again.

You have resigned as the leader of the opposition and you won’t be standing for parliament in the next election. Are you going to miss it?

Yes it’s in my blood. But my view is the same as Morné Du Plessis’ when he resigned as the Springbok rugby captain; that it is better to leave the field while they ask why you are going, than stay until they ask you why you are still on it. But twenty years in parliament is very long and thirteen years as leader was long enough – although no doubt it is all going to go swimmingly for the opposition, so my timing might not be brilliant (smiles). However the leadership wasn’t my personal property; I thought ‘let go’, before you are pushed.

What are you going to do?

I’m going to be a poor man’s Bill Clinton – I will make speeches for money, which I used to do for nothing (laughs). My publisher has asked me to write another book, although I’m still recovering from this one. And while I’m loyal to the DA, I won’t have the burdens of leadership; I will be a liberated person. I will be able to speak my mind and not worry if people are going to vote for me.

Are you optimistic about South Africa?

I don’t think Zimbabwe is the inevitable destination of South Africa, but it’s also not an impossible one either. It depends what we do. If people stand up as citizens then we won’t be Zimbabwe. It’s in our hands. I’m optimistic by nature, although sometimes given to cynicism, doubt and negativism; but I’m more hopeful now that here has been a bit of a breakup in the political logjam.

Who in the whole of history would you like to sit next to on a long flight?

I’m one of those people, who I think are in the majority, who don’t want to sit next to anyone (laughs). Going back in the whole of human history? Maybe Metternich, the Austrian politician; he designed an entire geo-political system from a very weak seat and a relatively poor set of cards. He did the Congress of Europe and I would like to see how he did that and what he thinks of Europe now. He did it as we would say, from a ‘disadvantaged’ position.

Which you no doubt identify with?

Absolutely! (Smiles).

Tell me something about Tony Leon that nobody else knows.

We have three Daschunds and I am absolutely obsessed with them. I am a patsy when it comes to my dogs.

What are their names?

Gina, Jemima and the one that arrived the day Bush got elected President and because he is little, is called George W Shrub.

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