tribute tony

In so many areas, Nelson Mandela provides exceptions to the rules and breaks many of the moulds in which our politics is so often and predictably cast.

In 1992, when I was the MP for Houghton, arguably the most famous ex-political prisoner in the world and certainly the most newsworthy South African political leader moved into the constituency. It was the time of my annual parliamentary report back meeting (something which from the not altogether agreeable vantage point of today's constituency-less voters must seem like an antique relic). One of my party activists suggested that I send Mandela a note inviting him to attend the function. This I did, and also attached to the invitation a chocolate cake welcoming him to the area.
I hardly expected either his attendance or an acknowledgement. The night after the meeting, I returned home quite late and was amazed to find a message on my answering machine. It was Mandela (I first assumed it was a friend doing an impressive imitation of what was, by then, a famous voice). But it was the real thing, or at least a recording of him, expressing regret at his non-attendance and grateful thanks for the cake! He also suggested that we have dinner at his home, and within a day or so, Zach de Beer, Ken Andrew and I were invited round to Madiba's residence for a meal - just the four of us.

It was my first meeting with Mandela, and set the tone and atmosphere for the many which were to follow: personal warmth, a fascination with people and events, and an engaging enjoyment of debate and discussion. I recall how Mandela regaled us with an account of his recent visit to Davos, where the good and the great of the international business community had berated him for the ANC's attachment to the by-then discredited policy of nationalisation. He told us how he got the ANC's team together and said to them, "Boys, we have got to change our position." I have no idea whether Mandela indeed had an epiphanous moment in the Swiss Alps, but I loved the story and the self-deprecating way in which he told it.

I suppose the most remarked upon feature of Mandela's persona, and his performance as both a political leader and as President of South Africa, is how the deep psychic wounds which one imagined his imprisoned past would bring to the political present seemed almost entirely absent in his demeanor, actions and policies. Perhaps this contrast was even more striking when weighed against the behaviour of others who had spent the equivalent of Mandela's prison term in exile, and yet returned to South Africa and soon exhibited a baleful, and barely concealed, brooding anger which often expressed itself, in the post-Mandela years, with unhappy consequences.

This is not to say that Mandela was not capable of deep anger, which he often (rightly, in my view) displayed in response to the so-called "third force" violence, which formed a bloody and constant background to the turbulent negotiations process. I also felt the wrath of his tongue, when we had heated (mostly private) exchanges about the Shell House shootings (or "massacre" as I and others dubbed it) involving ANC guards shooting Zulu marchers outside party headquarters, weeks before the 1994 election. Mandela never did persuade me about what happened that day, and my persistence on the topic infuriated him. But this simply highlighted the essence of the Mandela paradox: at one level he was (or could be), the most intensely partisan of politicians, but at another level, he was a global celebrity-cum-secular saint. He therefore, in so many ways, was beyond politics and the normal standards and criticisms applied to more ordinary politicians. Gaffes and mistakes never stuck to him, the ultimate most Teflon-coated of all modern statesmen. The thunderbolt of error and misstatement just bounced right off him.

But if the normal rules of politics did not apply to him, he also wore his power, and immense moral authority, very lightly. The day that Parliament first met following his historic inauguration, I was again amazed that Mandela had the time and interest to call me up, late at night in my Cape Town flat for a long chat and a suggestion for a follow-up breakfast meeting, which duly followed a few days later. While the practical upshot of the scrambled eggs on offer at Genadendal was an offer of an ambassadorship for my predecessor as leader, Zach de Beer, the meeting set, I thought, a far more important benchmark: Mandela told me that he hoped for a constructive relationship with the opposition (or the then small fraction of it which I then led). However, he also, frankly and honestly, shared with me some of his own frustrations with elements of his own organisation, and invited me "to hold up a mirror to government", announcing that both debate and dissent were worthy ideals. While neither of us could, in the intervening five years which followed, live up, at all times, to the positive energy of that early encounter, Mandela was pretty much true to his word. Indeed, at the numerous state banquets and pageants which he presided over, Mandela always introduced me, with a flourish and a chuckle, to this or that visiting potentate or grandee as "this is the man who gives me all my trouble".

A particular moment of truth in our relationship occurred shortly after my 40th birthday, which Mandela had graced with his presence. It was January 1997 and I received a by now fairly routine invitation for an early morning breakfast with the President. Although the hour was, for me, excruciatingly early, I duly presented myself at his Houghton home at 6am. Mandela, after a general and lively (despite the hour) tour d'horizon, rounded off the conversation with the extraordinary suggestion than the Democratic Party consider taking a seat in his cabinet. At that stage, the National Party had exited the Government of National Unity, and the DP had made the running as the parliamentary opposition. It was a remarkable invitation, tempting, at one level, to accept since it would have given us access to power and influence, despite our small parliamentary presence. On the other hand, there was a thin line between co-operation and co-optation. Our negotiations continued, telephonically, and in person for a few weeks thereafter, accompanied by an increasingly fervid media speculation which, in the words of one headline, posed the question: "TONY LEON FOR THE CABINET?"

At our final meeting on this particular and intriguing matter, Mandela determined our response when I asked him what rights, if any, a sole member of his cabinet would have to dissent from majority positions adopted by cabinet with which one disagreed. He answered that "you can debate anything you want inside cabinet, but once a matter has been agreed, we must face the world with one voice". It was what I thought. And then he added a parallel, which for me determined the issue beyond doubt: "Just like Mugabe and Nkomo do in Zimbabwe." The DP, while noting and appreciating the generosity of the offer, declined it with thanks.

Typically, our considered rejection of the invitation did nothing to undermine our relationship, politically and personally. When the time came in 1999 for Parliament to bid farewell to Mandela, I could inform the House with utter sincerity that paying tribute to the President, objectively a political opponent, was one of the easiest speeches I had ever had to make. I said on that occasion words, heartfelt and sincere, which the intervening passage of years seem only to have bolstered, as Mandela's visibility lessens but his stature increases: "You have graced this Parliament. You have graced this country. You have graced humanity."

As I look back now on the Mandela years, and the relationships it spawned, including his and mine, I am intensely humbled (not a condition which my opponents would normally accuse me of) that he shone the beneficence of his light on so many people.

There is dialogue in Brecht's play Galileo which goes along the lines:

"Pity the land that has no heroes.
Pity the land in need of heroes."

Our beloved, but benighted, country was in 1994 much in need of a hero. It was our good, perhaps our greatest fortune, that our hero was Nelson Mandela!

(2007)