Leon earned his stripes

Redi Direko

Redi Direko

The Bible tells us: "It is better to live in a corner of the housetop than in a house shared with a quarrelsome wife."

It goes on to say, "A nagging wife annoys like a constant nagging." (Proverbs 29)

I am not in any way suggesting that former DA leader Tony Leon is a nagging, quarrelsome wife, but there are many who saw his relentless criticism of the ruling party as the ranting of a nagging - shall I say - person. Leon has retired after an illustrious 20-year career in opposition politics. I am sure there are some who are grinning from ear to ear and are happy to see the back of him.

His whining ways did not earn him many friends. But to reduce his often heated challenges to the ruling party as whining and whingeing is to show an impoverished understanding of the importance of opposition politics. An effective, strong opposition is a bulwark against state excesses and power.

I dare say if we are honest with ourselves we will not only applaud Leon, but give him his due and deserved place in the annals of South Africa's history. And you do not have to be a DA supporter to do so.

Our former president Nelson Mandela said of him: "Your contribution to democracy is enormous. You have far more support for all you have done, than you will ever read about."

And despite what was often described as an acrimonious relationship, former president Thabo Mbeki also rightly acknowledged Leon's significant contribution to our society when he said: "I am certain that all of us will miss his lively engagement as party leader in public debates . indeed he has the bark of a bull terrier."

It is this "bark" and vigilance that will protect our hard-earned democracy. We should be thankful to any South African who has amplified his or her voice to defend it, regardless of the party from which they come.

South Africa is better off in the hands of men and women who are brave and will not be silenced.

There should not be a government or political party that has a monopoly on governance. If the DA was in power, I would expect the ANC or any other party to be vociferous and relentless in demanding accountability and challenging policies.

Those who argue that the ruling party has brought us democracy and should not be questioned are doing far more impairment to our society than those who dissent. It is precisely this kind of obsequious reverence that kept the Nationalist Party in power for decades.

The likes of Helen Suzman and Frederick van Zyl Slabbert tried their utmost to speak out against that regime's racist dogma, but the Nats prevailed because of a passive citizenry. We cannot afford that now.

There is a lot at stake and too much blood was shed to give us all, including the opposition, a voice. The gallant struggle against apartheid was not only about ensuring majority rule and democracy, but inherent in it was recognition of the right to question and oppose.

This, of course, does not make Leon a saint nor does it make the policies of the opposition parties more credible than those of the ruling party. Like any political entity, opposition parties also make populist statements to pander to the electorate. They too promise much and deliver very little and there is no guarantee that if elected, they would do better than the ANC.

But like him or not, Leon has earned his stripes as a true patriot, a fearless and eloquent debater who came in and transformed a lethargic Democratic Party to the strong Democratic Alliance of today.

Regardless of our parties of choice, South Africa is richer for his contribution.

As analyst Professor Sipho Seepe says: ". dignified, eloquent, reflective ... perhaps in the fullness of time we may come to appreciate Tony Leon's contribution to deepening democracy."

lRedi Direko is a radio 702 talkshow host