(This was a review I posted on Facebook’s Good Books Appreciation Society Page)
I received the book as a giveaway on this Facebook group and was intrigued though not really surprised by the few people who expressed an interest in a giveaway copy. One expressed the sentiment that a book by a ‘minor pale male liberal politician’ was a trivial side scene in our country’s narrative.’
Maybe, maybe. Truth is, I really didn’t know the full impact of what Leon did within the DA or thereafter and quite frankly, what any of his vast experience or more recent contributions may have brought to bear on his current views on South Africa. But I certainly know one thing: he has a far greater wealth of political experience and personal insight than I could possibly have and for this reason alone I wanted to read his views (I haven’t read any other of his books.)
And also, because I care deeply about my country of birth and its future.
The recommendation on the back by Judge Dennis Davis (my greatest legal inspiration & law lecturer) was another compelling reason for my reading this book:
“From the vantage point of years in active politics, Tony Leon provides a lucid analytical balance sheet of SA Ltd 2021. Eschewing political correctness, Leon tells it as he sees it.”
The book’s structure is particularly appealing for a non-fiction book. Not only the three parts, PRESENT, PAST AND FUTURE TENSE, (in that order specifically) but the short chapter headings throughout which make each point of the paragraphs punchier. Each chapter is also concise and easily readable. His thorough referencing (413 references in a book of 257 pages) and meticulous research, brings a wide- ranging, thought provoking, logical and rational response of relevance to the lives of any South African. As Davis states, he eshews political correctness. I like that. I underlined and flagged many passages and paragraphs as found them to be cogently and succinctly set out. He charts the weaknesses and pitfalls of the DA and its leadership and views the failings of the ANC with accuracy in precise passages for e.g. he writes of ‘disillusioned ANC supporters deprecating the extremities of Zuma’s misrule
‘as an unfortunate aberration rather than predictable outcome of prioritising party above state.’
He deals with a range of issues, and draws on a number of interesting comparatives and foreign experiences (for e.g. his comments and interest in Bill Browder’s Red Notice: How I Became Putin’s No 1 Enemy), comparing and contrasting the modus operandi of our own SA experience.
In PART 1, Present Tense, I particularly valued his chapter on myths and legends and the price of free speech and the analysis of the ANC’s effect on business (Chapters 6 & 7).
In Part 2, Past Tense, he details in 6 chapters how the dysfunctionality of the government accelerated after Mandela and into Mbeki’s time and how we landed up where we are today,’ gloomy under sunny skies,’ citing the sad state of education and identifying the biggest threat to the national solvency of the country- the public sector wage -bill. The chapters are particularly gloomy. He outlines the many ‘hoodlums at the helm’, with the likes of Dudu Myeni and her unfettered access to state security and finances, the rottenness of the Guptas and how ‘alternative versions’ of history are often at play, citing the case of a personal experience with Brian Molefe whose roles at Transnet and Escom have left a considerable deficit in our national infrastructure. And there are many more of these.
I was looking forward to PART 3. Was there any hope?
Here he starts with the rationality of Moeletsi Mbeki and his warning of the ANC’s use of divisive issue of property rights to attack the white population, citing the IRR’s finding that what interests most of the population is the saving of the economy rather than a constant reversion to race.
Quoting widely, he concludes that South Africa has indeed reached a fork in the road between the
‘limits imposed by the Constitution and the expansive needs of the ruling party’.
On the issue of land reform and rural development, he mentions the pivotal judgement of (now retired) Edwin Cameron at the Constitutional Court to the effect that, contrary to what is often believed and alleged, it is ‘the institutional capacity of the department’ rather than the constitution or courts or laws of the country that are at the heart of the ‘colossal’ crisis. The issues South Africa faces are indeed vast. One of the passages that really resonated (there were several) was this:
…the government’s culture of failure has been explained repeatedly, and to an ever more, often violently, disaffected citizenry, not by self-correction at the top, but by scapegoating racial minorities below.
He ends the book (Chapter 16) with a summary under separate headings titled Nine signposts: The road ahead, and an ultimate conclusion that while the dream of a ‘shining city on the hill’ may be improbable, it’s not impossible.
Important for me was his preface, in which he acknowledges that he is aware of making personal experience his main basis for authority.
I would suggest, in my limited view, that it is precisely his personal experience and insights that adequately justify the opinions he offers in his book.
I’m sure that many, in this beautiful but broken country of ours have wondered about the nine signposts he refers to- the fight or flight considerations (in which the young, idealistic have to weigh up whether their contributions could be better served elsewhere); whether the relinquishing of state control and excessive regulation could ever become a reality, and whether civil society and the efforts of the resilient private sector which are dependent on general kindness and generosity can ultimately save the day. The odds of a non-racial society governed by a strong rule of law and general sense of prosperity are long, he concludes.
But ultimately what I think we as South Africans can all agree on (citing a further quote he draws on) is that living in this country leaves you in a constant state of ambivalence which is both inspiring and dispiriting.
And this book takes you through it all. Highly recommend.