From Chihuahua to a bull terrier

For a politician, Tony Leon showed great foresight in choosing the hour of his departure from the scene.

For a politician, Tony Leon showed great foresight in choosing the hour of his departure from the scene.

Each time he wishes to emphasise a point, he thumbs through the copy of his autobiography On The Contrary, duly autographed and lying between us on the table-for-two at the Hyatt Hotel in Rosebank.

Page 669 tells the story of how, while in his study in the winter of 2006, he encountered a piece by Boris Johnson in the Weekly Telegraph that ruminated on "why Tony Blair was so reluctant to exit Downing Street".

It is a necessary fact of political biology that we never know when our time is up ...

At the time, Johnson was editor of the London paper. He's now taken over from Ken Livingstone as Mayor of the city.

Leon writes: "I saw in Boris's piece my own political epiphany. Surely, now, I should go?"

Then "I totted up the sums and realised I had been leader of the Prog-orientated opposition longer than anyone else. By the time of the next congress I would have served in the post for just on 13 years".

The only man who out-stayed him was Sir de Villiers Graaff "for 21 years and with each election he led an ever diminishing party".

"I had been fortunate to preside over growth, but if I stayed on too long it could all start going in reverse.

In any event, the party was now far more stable and in reasonable fighting trim. I was not, in truth, certain that there was much more I could do to take it further than it now stood."

In time, satisfied that he did all he could, he'd stand before congress to announce: "The next leader of the Democratic Alliance is Helen Zille."

Throughout his time as the face of the opposition, more so under Thabo Mbeki's presidency, Leon proved a thorn in the side of the ruling party.

It was during this time that Mbeki, a fierce opponent who denied Leon mandatory meetings, infamously referred to him as a Chihuahua.

But such was the worth of Leon's brand of politics that when he stood down from parliament, Mbeki had the following to say: "From where I sit in the government benches, I never had the courage to argue that he served merely as a Chihuahua, because indeed he had the bark of a bull terrier."

Thus elevated up the canine chain, Leon clearly has no intention to downgrade, in his retirement, to being a poodle, a servile follower.

In his speaking engagements, he uses the platform to continue to shape political thought and lead discussions.

Just a day prior to our meeting last Wednesday, he'd told a Sandton audience that Jacob Zuma's lack of formal education should not be seen as a yardstick of his capability or otherwise.

He makes the example of Jimmy Carter, with his high IQ, who made a mess of things and Harry S Truman, with his modest education, who led a relatively better US government administration.

With Leon, ever the orator, one question elicits a long detailed response.

While the dynamics of the Mbeki-Leon relationship were particularly frosty, he had a swinging relationship with Nelson Mandela, who even visited Leon in hospital.

Madiba called Leon Goofy, to Mbeki's Chihuahua, while the then Opposition leader referred to the revered statesman as Mickey Mouse!

With Mandela, Leon could get his way, like recommending Zach de Beer for an ambassadorial post. "They stopped during Mbeki's term," says Leon.

His has been a fulfilled political life, no doubt. He's met and sought the counsel of a variety of world leaders - from the Dalai Lama who he says "speaks old English", to former Israeli strongman Ariel Sharon whose condition he describes as "irrecoverable" to Margaret Thatcher, about whose son Sir Mark Leon only has one word - shady.

"I got married very late," says the 52 year old whose wife Michal was away home in Israel, leaving hubby to baby-sit in Cape Town by mobile phone from Johannesburg.

Michal brings two children into the marriage, son Etai who is doing a BA in politics - "unfortunately" - at Rhodes and a daughter Noa, who'd just been on the phone to dad. He calls her sweetie pie.

Of his family, Leon is on record as having said: "I have great sympathy for the Palestinians because I know what it is like to live under Israeli occupation."

He's clearly in love with Michal, whose name peppers his conversation quite generously.

Toto, the name of the music group, is Leon's pet name by his grandfather: "I love classical music, I love opera.

"I went on a course at UCT to study the works of Puccini".

But his music, "as the children tell me, is retarded". What he plays on his iPod at the gym is at least 25 years old, he says.

He reads a lot on finances - "I'm teaching myself, drilling down" - and currently his fascination is The Ascent of Money, written by historian Niall Ferguson, a bloke he got friendly with at Harvard University.

Nice lad, this Anthony James Leon!