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Ray Hartley Reviews The Accidental Ambassador by Tony Leon

The Accidental AmbassadorBy Ray Hartley for Sunday Times Lifestyle Magazine

A stint in Argentina gave the former opposition leader a fresh appreciation of South Africa, writes Ray Hartley

PICTURE a classroom somewhere in the bowels of the Department of International Relations and Co-operation in Pretoria. Seated at the desks are three soon-to-be ambassadors, Tony Leon, Zola Skweyiya and Ngconde Balfour.

They are being prepared for their new missions in Argentina, London and Botswana, respectively. Tony Leon, by his account – and it is the only account – is taking it all rather seriously. Zola Skweyiya admits that he is doing it out of political duty rather than desire, and Ngconde Balfour is frequently absent and wont to moan that he is being taught things he already knows.

The classes are Leon’s introduction to his new life as a representative of a government that he has criticised as corrupt, inefficient and incompetent in his years on the opposition benches.

After leaving parliament, Leon was pleased to lose his political straitjacket.

“I will certainly not miss the often dreary non-debates about non-issues which, over the past decade, often passed as the staple of parliamentary engagement. Nor will I mourn, too deeply, the dark arts of political in-fighting and intrigue with which political leadership is associated,” he wrote in the Sunday Times in 2009.

The course and a rapid introduction to Spanish behind him, he leaves South Africa for Buenos Aires to begin his new life as ambassador.

On his return, Leon is a changed man. He has not, he is quick to say, abandoned any of his principles. But he grudgingly concedes that he sees South African politics in a different light. His experiences while in Argentina have made him think again.

No longer “leader of the opposition”, he finds to his surprise that new doors are open to him. Leon has entered a new life in a realm somewhere above the grind of politics where there is more hope and possibility.

The then defence minister, Lindiwe Sisulu, whom he has always viewed as a preening “princess”, alights from the steps of the plane in Argentina to give him a warm hug. Leon observes that she is, it turns out, effective and functional as she deals with the signing of some or other much-delayed treaty that Leon had badgered her to attend to.

In Argentina’s president, Cristina Kirchner, he sees what a real princess can do when given the levers of power. Benefiting from several plastic surgeries, Kirchner sports “Angelina Jolie lips”. He makes this observation as he hands her his official accreditation.

Princess privilege, in fact, knows no bounds. Leon discovers Kirchner’s government has banned the Big Mac from the McDonalds menu in Argentina, apparently because of The Economist‘s Big Mac Index, which it uses to calculate the true values of foreign currencies. The magazine retaliates by refusing to carry any of Argentina’s official statistics. It is more than an amusing sideshow, Leon points out. By manipulating the inflation figure, Kirchner is able to cheat buyers of inflation-linked bonds out of money.

Members of the embassy staff, by contrast, are not princesses. They are professional to a fault, Leon discovers. Dirco itself runs a very tight ship and is proud of its clean status with the auditor-general, going so far as to warn Leon not to tarnish its reputation by spending improperly.

The secretary-general of the National Union of Mineworkers, Frans Baleni, visits. Leon notes that South Africa’s laws, which protect labour, pale when compared to those of Argentina, where it is all but impossible to fire someone. Baleni shows big eyes at the thought.

In South Africa, Julius Malema advocates nationalisation in a populist assault on the investment community. But Malema is disciplined, sidelined and fired. Nationalisation is rejected by the ANC’s party conference.

In Argentina, the pouting president nationalises the country’s leading oil company by fiat. Newspapers, which are critical of her administration, are victimised. The tax collection agency is used to target dissenters.

Leon’s own eyes widen at everyday occurrences, like purchasing a pastry, which is a nightmare. There is a queue for the pastry and then a second queue to pay for it as an old shopkeeper thumbs his way through an order book in which each and every sale is recorded. Everything starts late. Meals frequently take place in the early hours of the morning, leading to unproductive mornings.

On tour with The Accidental Ambassador, his book on his experiences, he is back home and lighter and freer than when he left. There are no queues at the shops in Joburg’s Hyde Park shopping centre. A book club hosts him; he once again mentions Kirchner’s Angelina Jolie lips and can’t resist a swipe at his successor, Helen Zille, pointing out that Botox is fashionable in the Democratic Alliance these days.

He is at pains to point out that he remains somewhere in the DA firmament, but there is just a hint of bitterness. He appears slighted that he is not recognised for having created the platform for the party’s growth.

The irony – and in South Africa there is always irony – is that Leon and Zille have, sometime in the last five years, quietly passed each other like ships in the night. Zille has gone in the opposite direction – from independent journalist and NGO leader to party partisan. Leon, on the other hand, has had a relatively easy walk from politics to freedom. – @hartleyr


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  • The Accidental Ambassador is published by Pan Macmillan

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