Tony Leon: ‘I will pass the test’ on making DA’s case without mentioning ANC

Tony Leon. Picture: Gallo Images

Tony Leon. Picture: Gallo Images

The former leader of the opposition offered his frank assessment of the state of SA politics ahead of elections.

In an interview with 702 on Wednesday, former DA leader Tony Leon was upfront about the prospects of his party in the upcoming elections, not sparing the DA criticism while also promoting his party as the most sensible choice for South Africa.

At one point he relished the opportunity to take up the challenge from host Eusebius McKaiser to promote the DA as the best choice for voters without once mentioning the ANC.

Leon, said: “Ah! This is a test and I’m going to pass it.”

He told McKaiser: “Last week the think-tank Good Governance Africa produced a table, an index based on 213 municipalities in South Africa judged on administration, economic development and service delivery. And they ranked them from best to worst. Of the 20 top-performing municipalities, 15 were run by the DA, either alone or in coalition, and in the bottom 20 there wasn’t one DA administration.

“This is really an argument about government, and the DA can show it has governed certain parts of South Africa. The [DA-run province of] the Western Cape was the only province that produced an 83% clean audit sheet. No other province got near that. It’s the only province that produced 75% of the net new jobs in the last year.

“Those statistics prove that DA governance actually delivers in a reasonably corruption free and effective manner.”

He said the party had also played an important role as an opposition leader to expose state capture, along with the media and other opposition parties, particularly the EFF and UDM.

“Primarily it was the DA which used resources, effort and a lot of parliamentary and judicial time to expose everything from Nkandla to the spy tapes to getting Jacob Zuma back in the criminal dock. That happened because the opposition had to take the government to court to actually fight its corner. The motions of no confidence in parliament also helped to keep the spotlight on government during its darkest chapter of the last 25 years.

“Without a large, significant, purposeful opposition, that project would not have been successful to the extent that is was.”

He added that the DA was the only opposition party that could put forward both a strong governance and opposition track record for why it should be voted for.

The two ANCs

Leon nevertheless did have a lot to say about the ANC, pointing out that in his view the ruling party was split down the middle between the “good guys” like President Cyril Ramaphosa and his supporters and the “Gangster State crowd”, which included Ace Magashule and Jacob Zuma, and that voters could not be guaranteed which version of the ANC they were going to get.

“They’re under one banner. It’s a hell of a risk. You put your cross next to them and you don’t know which ANC you’re going to get.

He criticised Ramaphosa for recently imploring voters not to “punish the ANC” at the ballot box.

“Of course you should do that,” said Leon, who wondered how and when voters would have a chance to punish any governing party, if not during elections.

Leon was coy on his views about the state of the DA if the party under Mmusi Maimane got less than 25% of the vote. He said that if the DA didn’t put in a strong performance, it would need to introspect because a number of factors had been in its favour, primarily the own-goals of the ANC.

The opposition project

He said he continued to believe in the “opposition project” and the DA in particular, though he admitted there were other opposition parties that had credible proposals for certain voters. However, he said the DA had to be seen as the most strategic choice for advancing the cause of liberal democracy.

“The DA and even the EFF have the advantage of relative unity and relative ideological coherence, but they are not that big that they have to accommodate a whole lot of different factions and wings. So in a sense their greatest strength is also their greatest weakness.”

Leon said the formation of the DA and EFF had been “game changers” for opposition politics since they were the only two parties that had actually shown growth since their inception.

“The EFF grew between the 2014 national election and the 2016 government elections, and the DA has grown consistently since 1994.”

However, he said that he agreed with the axiom that opposition parties didn’t win elections; rather, governments lost them.

“That is almost universally true. I suspect that despite [all SA’s problems], there is going to be more pain and suffering in this country until people say ‘genoeg is genoeg, enough is enough’, we’ve got to try something else, whatever it is. I’m not sure that has been reached yet in this country.

“But the point of reckoning is soon,” he said, adding that his friend Finance Minister Tito Mboweni had been candid in pointing out the worrying reality that South Africa borrows R1.2 billion every day and pays R1 billion every day in interest on its debt.

“That is the road to national insolvency. When that happens, all the public goods people now see as their right will not be sustainable.”

How to deal with the two lived realities in SA

Leon was also frank in admitting to the two “realities” of South Africa, including in DA-run areas, admitting he lived in the one that most South Africans did not.

“I don’t subscribe to the idea of the DA saying they can deliver a job in every home [if they were the government]. I know that’s part of the election script, but that’s just not possible. What is possible is that a national government can do something about getting the growth rate up from the pathetic lows of 1%.

“We can have an argument about inequality, which is huge. But what’s your priority? To take a relatively small [wealth base] and divide it up even further, or do we try and grow the economy?

“Here’s just one figure: the National Development Plan – which Cyril was a co-author of and most people don’t even mention any more – said if we can get 5.7% GDP growth per year, we could double the per capita income in SA in 13 years. If you carry along on the 1% road or lower, it’s going to take 100 years. Those lived realities will become even worse.

“What is going to be the most effective, sustainable way of lifting it up? I would say, go for growth.” He said liberal economic policies and trust in markets had shown the success of the model globally.

His unexpected return from retirement

On a personal note, Leon described his sudden return to politics and canvassing for the DA as “very tiring”.

He said he had told his wife on Tuesday night that he couldn’t believe he had once done this every day for so many years. “I got back absolutely exhausted late last night.”

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