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South African opposition leader Tony Leon questioned several of his government’s recent decisions and called the country’s foreign policy “schizophrenic” in a speech at the Law School yesterday.
The head of the Democratic Alliance, South Africa’s leading opposition party, Leon criticized the country’s ties to Saddam Hussein’s government during the time the Iraqi dictator was in power, the country’s decision to veto a United Nations resolution condemning human-rights violations in Myanmar, and its policy of “silent diplomacy” in regard to Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe’s “assault on civil liberties” in his country.
“[South Africa’s] approach to foreign relations is rapidly undermining our international credibility and has all but obliterated the moral high ground we struggled so hard to achieve through our transition to democracy,” he said.
But, Leon said, South Africa has also had several notable accomplishments that have allowed it to stand out as a “moral beacon” in the world and the African continent.
“Under President Thabo Mbeki, South Africa has achieved a number of foreign policy successes, most particularly in the field of conflict resolution on the African continent,” he said.
Originally a practicing lawyer and a lecturer at the University of the Witwatersrand, Leon has led the Democratic Alliance for the last thirteen years.
In an interview with The Crimson after his speech, he said that his greatest success over the course of his career in politics was “taking a very small marginal party and turning it into the second-largest.”
But Leon—who, at fifty years old, plans to step down in May—said in his interview that the country still has a ways to go before achieving a true democracy.
“Our politics are still largely based on ethnic identity, so we have not yet transcended race,” he said. “If we want to become a successful democracy, we have to get beyond race.”
The event was hosted by the Harvard African Law Association and coordinated by Law School student Joel B. Pollak ’99, Leon’s personal speechwriter from 2002 to 2006.
“I’ve always been interested in South African politics,” Pollak said, “and [being on Leon’s staff was] the best way to get involved and to be a part of this great transition to democracy that South Africa is going through.”
Andre D. Stein, a South African student at the Kennedy School, said that he was drawn to the event because “Tony Leon has been an exceptional leader for South Africa.”
“South Africa is playing an important part on the world stage,” he said, “but it needs to lead not just with its head, but with its heart.”
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