Why I fled the untransformed DA

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si tony leon . ROCKY RELATIONSHIP: Raenette Taljaard with Tony Leon. I grew restless about the sincerity of his commitment to transform the party when every strategy meeting continued to be held in the same cloistered confines of white male comfort, she says in her book. Picture: Andrew Ingram

In January 2004 the DA became involved in the final phases of its internal process to select candidates for the forthcoming general election. In support of my candidacy Helen Suzman wrote the most wonderful letter, which touched my heart. With her support I felt I’d been called back to serve what remained of the liberal cause within the DA.

The only other candidate who received similar support was Francis Antonie. Despite Helen’s recommendation on our behalf, we were both aghast when the Electoral College placed the two of us in unelectable positions – a bizarre fate for people who had the full support of the doyenne of the party. I recall Francis and me sitting on his porch, trying to understand what was happening in the party.

The truth was that some eager members of the provincial legislatures, who were close friends of sitting MPs from Gauteng, were hungry for promotion to the national ranks of the party and had been promoted ahead of us on the candidacy list. They were simply much better at organising themselves and playing politics than I ever was.

After the news broke I got a call from Tony Leon to tell me to stay calm. He assured me he would use his power as leader to return me to Parliament.

I could not sleep that night and asked myself countless times why I had decided to return home from Yale, only to be humiliated in this way.

I was angry with Tony for having been so persistent. I was much less angry with Helen, though her note had played a more powerful role in bringing me home than any entreaties of Tony’s.

si raenette

The next morning I called Tony’s secretary to set up a meeting. I had decided I simply wanted to leave and not be involved in the party any longer. Tony must have realised where I was emotionally and what my immediate reaction would be. Cleverly, he was not available when I called. His wife Michal answered and suggested we meet for coffee at Melissa’s in Newlands, close to their home.

Michal’s advice was that I leave not at a time chosen for me by the Electoral College but at one of my choosing, after Tony had preferred me on the candidacy list. After a long conversation with her I decided to hang in there and deal with my feelings of anger and humiliation. Michal was very persuasive. But I would soon learn what it meant to enter Parliament as the preferred candidate of the leader of the opposition. It would mean unquestioning loyalty and assumed support for his positions in debates and internal caucus votes – something I was not able to give at all times.

Parliament began its work and I was soon caught up in the cut and thrust of debates. After a few weeks, I made an appointment to see Tony. I could feel that the dynamic between us had changed completely. Gone were the days when I felt wanted and valued. Now I was one of the people who appeared to annoy him every time I raised the issue of racial and gender diversity in the DA or questioned a strategic decision of the party.

Perhaps I did not appreciate the frustrations of the job of leader of the opposition. Tony had just returned from the Free State, where he had had a nightmarish public meeting in which he was reluctantly drawn to declare his support for the death penalty yet again. Though his secretary wisely counselled that ‘The Leader’ was in a foul mood and that I might be better placed to meet him the following day, I decided to be brave and see him then and there. I expressed to him my dismay that so few women and what were euphemistically called “non-traditional DA supporters” were involved in the strategy and tactics of the election campaign.

Tony was patient and promised that with the power he now had to influence the composition of the candidates’ list he would act against “gatekeepers” and, in his words, “blacken the list” in order to alter the racial composition of the opposition benches. All I needed to do was wait for the influx of new MPs to transform the complexion of the party’s team. I left feeling somewhat uneasy about his defensive tone and his choice of words.

As the party’s campaign got under way I threw myself into the work, ably assisted by my new economics researcher, Tim Harris. But my heart was not in the campaign at all. It was not only that the tone of South African politics had altered and become ever more acrimonious, but that I could not ignore how ill at ease I felt in representing the DA. I regretted my decision to go along with Tony’s preferment on the party list, instead of simply walking away. But it was my decision, after having listened to Michal, and I had only myself to blame.

As the months went by I felt growing frustration within the party. It seemed to me that Tony was becoming more and more isolated and cloistered in a bubble with his male entourage, who acted as echo chambers for each other’s belief systems and world outlook. I observed these developments with dismay and an ever-growing sense of unease.

At about this time Tony returned from a trip to the US, where he had spent some time observing the Bush-Kerry presidential election. He kept lamenting the absence of robust engagement in South African politics, unlike the no-holds-barred exchanges he had just witnessed on the campaign trail in the US.

Since 1999 I had become increasingly concerned at the tone that marked his and Thabo Mbeki’s exchanges – and, despite his views, I never thought that Tony’s own posture lacked robustness. In fact, if anything, I wonder whether he and Mbeki do not have to shoulder equal responsibility for the sheer racial perniciousness into which public dialogue and debate often degenerated. I was deeply averse to engaging in war-like posturing with ANC colleagues whose intentions and motivations were similar to mine – although we held widely divergent views on how best to achieve our common goals.

They were my compatriots, not my arch-rivals. It seemed to me that Tony and I were on two different tracks emotionally.

In response to his comments I said to Tony that, unlike what happened at home, Republicans and Democrats in the States actually have civil engagements and social interactions that give them the “forward cover” they need when they clash in public.

I reminded him that I saw precious little of this in our body politic and that its absence contributed to his frosty relations with Mbeki and the hostile tone of war-mongering, which I believed to be unhealthy in such a racially polarised society as ours.

I pointed out to him the lack of meetings of any nature, whether formal or informal, between him and Mbeki and argued that this was profoundly dysfunctional and that it very likely short-changed both the nation and the national discourse.

I continued to have growing reservations about Tony’s leadership and his inability, in my eyes, to show empathy in public, despite his having a private reservoir of this trait in abundance.

I also grew restless about the sincerity of his commitment to transform the party when every strategy meeting continued to be held in the same cloistered confines of white male comfort.

All the same, I would never display any open disloyalty to him publicly. Even when I resigned and fervently wished that I could be candid with the media about my reasons for leaving, I made sure not to breach this loyalty, though it meant that for almost a decade after leaving Parliament and the DA I have had to shoulder the inaccurate public perception that I remain loyal to the party when, in fact, I left the DA and Parliament in that order.

South Africa has produced only one Nelson Mandela and one Helen Suzman among a generation of leaders we all venerate. I fervently wish that people of similar calibre and personal values may emerge in subsequent generations of political leaders.

I did catch sight of a unique principled person when Helen Zille moved from provincial politics to the national Parliament and became my corridor colleague for the few months I spent with her.

The glimpse I had was of a no-nonsense, hard-working, straight-talking, incorruptible woman of significant empathy and of strong personal values and convictions.

In these basic characteristics, not to mention her own impeccable struggle credentials, she has often reminded me of her namesake.

I always believed she would be a perfect successor to Tony if the party failed to transform fast enough to deliver a credible black leader.

A credible black DA leader was always my personal first choice for the party.

I often raised the painstakingly slow nature of transformation in the party with Tony, and the question of diversity was a significant reason for my early departure from the DA.

I remain amazed that so many years after I left – nearly seven – the party still battles with these issues for the very same reasons it once did – a degree of gate-keeping and gamesmanship that simply leads the organisation to scoring “own goals” in respect of racial transformation.

The heated exchanges that currently mark the election for the leadership of the party in Parliament in 2011 may still, irrespective of its outcome, fracture the party on factional and racial lines, and its support base too.

n Up in Arms: Pursuing Accountability for the Arms Deal in Parliament, by Raenette Taljaard, is published by Jacana


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