Former leader of the Democratic Alliance (DA) Tony Leon is not back for good, he says, but he has returned from political obscurity to give the party he helped build a much-needed campaign boost.
Anthony James “Tony” Leon is in many ways a symbol of the party’s classical libertarian roots from its inception in 2000.
Critics have suggested that, like his successor Helen Zille, his exit from mainstream politics may have alienated a small, but powerful sect of the DA’s more conservative supporters.
He led the DA from 2000, when it evolved from the old Democratic Party, until his retirement from leadership in 2007.
Leon’s life was almost destined to play out in the political arena, having been born to well-known high court Judge Ramon Leon and Sheila Schulz. Both his parents were active in the liberal Progressive Party, which later became the Democratic Party.
After stepping aside as the DA’s leader in 2007, Leon was a Fellow at the Institute of Politics at Harvard’s John F Kennedy School of Government, before being appointed as South Africa’s ambassador to Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay in 2009.
He completed his term there in January 2013 and upon his return to South Africa, he was awarded a fellowship at the Stellenbosch Institute for Advanced Study.
For the past few years he has been a regular columnist for several publications, has written a couple of books and attended to his business interests.
But while things may have been going smoothly for Leon, it appears the DA believed it needed his deft hand to help it navigate the upcoming elections. And so, out of the proverbial blue, Leon announced a return to active politics this week.
He hit the ground running, campaigning around the country just weeks before its most contested national election.
“They approached me and said ‘we would really appreciate it if you would lend us a hand. We put our efforts in different parts of South Africa to propel us into the elections and [need] someone who has been passionately involved in the opposition project since the building of the DA and its predecessors,’” he explains.
The party has grown and evolved since he was last at the helm 10 years ago, he notes, but at its core he believes it still holds the same values – it just needs to remind its supporters of that.
“This is a watershed moment for South Africa,” he muses. “I was elected into parliament at a time when if we didn’t make the political changes needed, then we were headed into racial Armageddon and civil war.
“At the time, I wouldn’t have believed that, 30 years later, the country would be as perilous economically as it was politically three decades ago.”
Credited as a founding member of the DA, a marriage of conservative and liberal opposition parties in 2000, Leon was the longest-serving leader of South Africa’s official opposition, before serving the ANC government as an ambassador to Argentina between 2009, when he stepped down as DA leader, to 2012.
“I’m not some robotic member of the DA, I have seen and I appreciate that not everything that has been done has been correct.
“But if you look at the overall picture, we are the only party in the election that offers any economic reform,” he says.
Of his so-called comeback, he insists it is not a return to mainstream politics and while he is happy to “lend his voice to the party”, he will not be holding any official office or play a leadership role. He suggests his return is more of beckoning to those who may think the DA has lost its roots.
“Really, in a sense, it shows that the DA is trying to stretch the continuity to show that although it is a different party, it still shares the same core values we had when I was at the helm.
“That’s an important message and that we are not just one narrow sect,” he says.
He lauds the party for its ability to attract members and voters from across the socioeconomic and racial spectrum, but he says it’s time to amalgamate the different voices into one.
“I am a card-carrying member of the DA and am of the belief that South Africa does have liberal values in its DNA, and they need to be reinforced.
“Not because I am an ideologue or anything, but we know that there hasn’t been any society that has succeeded without individual liberty, a free market economy and social democracy, and that message needs to be put out there.
“We can’t spend our taxes away, otherwise we are on the fast track to national insolvency, and that message has got to get out again, and I have to be effective in lending my voice to those efforts.”
Leon says he has always been a supporter of current leader Mmusi Mmaimane’s leadership and has been called in from time to time to assist him with certain tasks. But he is not a back-seat driver of the organisation and does not plan on being one in the future.
His return is definitely only temporary, he reiterates, and a return to a peaceful life away from the political hot seats awaits.