“I regard myself as an apprentice — I’m learning as I go along. So far I haven’t committed any terrible faux pas,” he said during an interview at the weekend in the Patagonian coastal town of Comodoro Rivadavia — more than 1800km south of his embassy in the Argentine capital, Buenos Aires.
Leon, accompanied by his Israeli-born wife, Michal, was on his first official visit out of Buenos Aires province since assuming his post on October 1, following a three-week diplomatic training course. His mission: to make contact with a group of Afrikaans-speaking Boer descendants, whose forebears arrived in the region early last century.
After his long political career, including 13 years at the helm of the Democratic Alliance, Leon says of his new career as a diplomat that it was time for something different.
“It’s something completely different from anything I’ve done before. In that sense it’s a new challenge. I’d maxed out on politics and the rough and tumble of party affairs, and I genuinely felt that I’d done what I could do in terms of the DA and the opposition.
He never expected it would be easy.
“As I said to somebody [before I left South Africa], I’m going to a country I don’t know; where there’s a language [Spanish] I don’t speak; to a job I’ve never done before!”
Tony Leon says one of his main focus areas during his four-year tenure will be trade.
“I’d like to try and reverse some of the terms of trade, which are heavily skewed in Argentina’s favour. The ratios are about four to one, in terms of Argentina’s exports to South Africa, versus South Africa’s exports to Argentna.
“There are goods that Argentina imports from countries around the world, except from South Africa, yet South Africa is exporting those goods. So the embassy put together a hit list of all those goods and the South African exporters.” Top among these goods are automotive parts, as well as various iron and steel products.
Asked if it was fair to say he had in fact “taken the government shilling”, a criticism Leon levelled last year against a journalist who had moved into government service, he responds: “I think that’s fair comment, but I would say it’s something I thought about very carefully, and there was quite a lot of precedent for it, in the sense that there were some of my colleagues who were made ambassadors before I was.
“My answer [to such criticism] would be in three parts — The first is that if we had the view that only ANC personnel could take up an appointment as an ambassador, then we will be saying that we don’t actually want political representivity in the ambassadorial ranks — which I don’t think is right.
“The second is, I think it depends where you are. Should I have been made ambassador to Zimbabwe, for example — I wouldn’t have taken an appointment like that because I wouldn’t really be able, in all conscience, to [do so].
“I don’t know [about] this [President Jacob] Zuma government, but I certainly wouldn’t have been comfortable with, and wouldn’t have been able to defend [former president Thabo] Mbeki’s approach to Zimbabwe, because I disagree with it.
“In the Latin-American context, I don’t see any ideological conflict between what I stood for and what the government stands for, although there might be some.
“The president [Zuma] said to me: ‘It is very important we have DA people representing South Africa because we all want what is good for our country, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re DA or ANC.’
“I agree with that. I think you can represent South Africa without representing the ANC.”
Leon says he was advised to be frank about the challenges facing South Africa, and that he is not expected, as an ambassador, to “lie abroad”.
No one in government had dictated what he could or could not say in his new post.
“I’ve really been left here as a free agent, to interpret the job as I deem fit and appropriate. I don’t feel pressurised to conform to a particular script at all. It might arise, but I haven’t yet had a crisis of conscience, nor have I felt any pressure.”
Asked if he thought circumstances could arise where he might have such a “crisis of conscience”, Leon replies: “Yes, they could arise, and I would have to address it when it does.”
He notes that at one time he had practised as an attorney.
“Sometimes you’ve got to represent your client when you don’t necessarily agree with everything that they do. But if there was a major issue of principle, where I was obliged to forward something that was fundamentally wrong, I couldn’t see myself doing that.
“But I don’t imagine it arising in this context, but it could arise, and I will address it appropriately.”
Asked if he misses the cut and thrust of politics, Leon says he does not.
“Strangely enough I don’t. I’ve had more than my fair share of it. The thing is, although at some times it was kind of hair-raising and difficult, when I look at the (political) discourse — although I think the tone has changed for the better since Mbeki left and Zuma came in — I don’t feel I’m missing out because the issues are still basically the same.”
What was different was government’s preparedness to listen to other views, “which they certainly weren’t prepared to do when Mbeki was around”.
On South Africa’s future, Leon is cautiously positive. “It takes a few steps forward and a few steps backwards. There have been some mixed signals coming out. I think there is a more open debate now, which there really wasn’t during the critical years I was at the helm. Then there was no debate, or there was no willingness to debate. I think that’s the change.
“I think the government persists with some policies that are wrong, in my view, and some others which are right, as no doubt many governments do.”
Asked to say what he thought was right or wrong, Leon replies with a laugh: “I think I’ll leave it at that!”
He adds that he thinks government is now more willing to acknowledge challenges, and describes Zuma as “refreshingly candid” compared to his predecessor.
“Mbeki would never have acknowledged that there was a crime crisis, or an economic crisis,” Leon says.
There are, however, issues that disturb him, including the recent furore around electricity utility Eskom’s leadership.
“That, I thought, was a missed opportunity. But, on the other hand, when I look at the energy and purposefulness with which we’re approaching the 2010 World Cup, I think it’s a fantastic opportunity for the country to come together and put its best foot forward.
“We [can] leave an indelible mark on the world. This is a big event, and it’s a hanger on which we can put a whole lot of other things.”
Leon says the embassy plans to hold a ‘Festival of South Africa’ in Argentina next year, ahead of the World Cup tournament.
“This will cover everything, from culture, to sport and literature and film, just to create awareness.”
Meanwhile, Leon and his wife — who are both learning Spanish — have taken up residence in the official three-storey apartment ambassador’s residence, located in the Buenos Aires suburb of Palermo. Bought by the South African government in 1973, it is, he says, ”vast and formalistic. I can’t find Michal; I have to shout,” he jokes.
Asked if he would consider a return to politics at some point, he replies: “I never say never, but I am very aware of the Greek philosopher who said you should not step in the same river twice.
“In four years’ time, when I finish this stint, I’ll be 56. A lot of people only start their political careers at that age. I’ll see what the situation is [then].” In a jocular vein, he adds: “But in four years’ time, everyone might have forgotten who Tony Leon is!”