The details of the Democratic Alliance battle between Helen Zille and Tony Leon, her predecessor as national leader, has emerged in Zille’s autobiography Not Without a Fight. When she was a backbench parliamentarian and the Democratic Party’s national spokeswoman – found his office to be “impenetrable” and “a nest of narcissism”. At one point in the fight with the New National Party and the Democratic Alliance into which it had merged with the Democratic Party, Zille was prepared to cross the floor to re-form the Democratic Party and thought that Leon had sold the caucus a merger lemon
Helen Zille makes no bones that she has “a complex relationship” with her predecessor, Tony Leon, who took the small liberal Democratic Party from the periphery of South African politics to become the official opposition it is today.
At the Cape Town Press Club launch of her book, Netwerk24 editor Adriaan Basson – author of the book Zuma Exposed – was in conversation with Zille. He went right to the gullet. He said if one were to update her Facebook status, Zille’s relationship with Leon would be described as “complicated”. Basson said: “You praise Tony for not taking up a minister’s position in the Madiba (Nelson Mandela’s) cabinet… but (the launched) your own Project Fight Back to get Tony out of the party.”
Former Democratic Alliance leader Tony Leon
Noting that she had described Leon’s office as an impenetrable “nest of narcissism” in Not Without a Fight, Basson reported that Zille – who succeeded Leon in 2007 – had described Leon’s office as Leader of the Official Opposition as populated by “the coterie of young men”. She described them as “a nest of narcissism”, who were “impenetrable to other perspectives and intoxicated on their own importance”. Basson, quoting an extract, reported that “anyone who did not agree with them (the white boys’ club) was an idiot, a goody two-shoes or an adversary… depending on the issue.” Zille writes further: “I had no direct line to Tony (Leon). I gave up trying to work through (now shadow finance minister) David Maynier, his chief of staff… who approached everything as if it were a military manoeuvre and tended to impute motives and agendas where they did not exist … to the point that one had to develop a motive and an agenda as well as a strategy to get anything across to the leader.”
Basson reported Zille as writing about the young white boys’ group: “Increasingly I just kept my distance. I only understood their office culture many years later when on an international flight I watched a few episodes of the West Wing, the television series depicting the cut-throat politics of the US president’s office. “And it suddenly dawned on me…. Tony’s office had been modelled on the West House of the West Wing. And each of the bright young politicos that surrounded him was playing a role … as if vying for an Emmy (United States television award).”
Relationship between Zille and Leon ‘complex’
Basson asked Zille – who he referred to as Helen through the conversation – whether she agreed with his assessment of the relationship status with Leon, who went on to become South Africa’s Ambassador to Argentina after serving out his term as MP to the end of 2009.
Zille provided a very candid reply to the press club conversation: “My relationship with Tony was very complex. I did not like the fight back campaign at all (in the 1999 national election which turbocharged then Democratic Party into official opposition status). He was (proved) right about the fight-back campaign….I supported him in realigning the politics when he brought in the NNP (the New National Party of Marthinus van Schalkwyk) because I felt very strongly it would change the dynamic in the Western Cape government…which was impossible under (Dr) Niel Barnard (then director general of the Western Cape government and former chief apartheid-era spy) and Gerald Morkel (then Western Cape premier) …”
Reversing the reverse takeover
She continued: “But when the New National Party tried a reverse takeover which they did. It really mattered because our (liberal democratic) core value set was at stake. When Marthinus van Schalkwyk left the party (and later merged his party with the African National Congress), Tony was really spooked by that development. He did not want the remaining National Party members in the DA to walk out again. They understood at that point that they had a lever on Tony… which they used all the time. … and if they didn’t get there way, they said they were going to leave.
Western Cape Premier Helen Zille, former Democratic Alliance leader
Of course you had the floor crossing in those days which made it very easy for them to leave. Tony was terrified that his entire legacy would go down the drain… where this great gamble he had taken (to merge the DP with the NNP) would explode for a second time…. And the great risk that we would go back to the 1.7 percent (of the vote) that we (the Democratic Party) got in 1994. So he had to keep the party together. I have a great sense of empathy with that. You do have to keep the party together when you are the leader. And I had to keep the party together when I was the leader.”
Thoughts of restarting the Democratic Party
But Zille acknowledged that she had some doubts about the way that Leon was leading the party at this stage (Leon had led the tiny party from 1994 and taken it to official opposition status in 1999. In 2000 the DA was formed with the DP and NNP but the merger soon fell apart with the NNP – or bits of it – moving out of the DA). Zille said at the the she was not prepared to accept the trade-off with our core (liberal democratic) values. So eventually I decided that even if we had to cross the floor to restart the Democratic Party, I was going to do that. But of course, we decided not to do that … we decided it was the wrong thing to do.. it was better to fight back within the party and retake hold of the party which is then what we did, despite the fact that we were a tiny minority in the Western Cape. We were outnumbers two to one (NNP and DP elected members). We had to fight back with every strategic intervention.”
Approached for comment Leon said leaders wrote their autobiographies in their own manner. “Everyone writes their history in their own way.” Regarding the so-called nest of narcissists – Leon said he obviously did NOT concur with the description – and other current leaders in the party took courage. He had chosen in his own autobiography a different approach. He had, instead, been “extremely careful” what he had said about current members of the party. Significantly it was the same group of people in the so-called narcissistic group who were leading lights in the DA today and served Zille as leader – and provincial premier in the Western Cape.
Narcissistic group ‘still part of the party’
They included David Maynier, Tim Harris (one-time finance spokesman and now CEO of Wesgro), Ryan Coetzee (who was an MP and became adviser to Zille and who was a close confidante of Leon). Leon said Zille was clearly not just “saving fire” for external opponents, she focused on internal figures. (Zille reported to the Cape Messenger editor that James Selfe – mentioned by Leon – was “never in Tony’s office”. She reported that the men surrounding Leon “at the time” were “primarily” Ryan (Coetzee), Gareth van Onselen, Nick Clelland – who now works with Leon in his business – along with Maynier “and a few others”).
Leon said he could have written in his own autobiography about the squabble between Theuns Botha – the former DA provincial leader – and Zille, but had chosen not to do so. “Without being dishonest, I thought all the gory details would not advance the party.”
Regarding the accusation that his office was “impenetrable”, Leon said: “She (Zille) had constant and frequent access to me (when he was party leader). She came to visit me at weekends… at home to complain about Theuns Botha. It didn’t mean that I always agreed with her assessment. I had to worry about the (performance of the) party in all nine provinces while she was worried about just one metro (Cape Town metropolitan council where Zille had become mayor). She wasn’t a provincial leader at the time.” He said one had to avoid blending history with science fiction.
Asked if it was inappropriate to name people in this way as had happened in Zille’s book, he said: “It is not for me to judge… I chose a different approach.”