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Saturday, May 11, 2013


Humorous and illuminating insights to life as an ambassador of South Africa. (Review by Michael Green)

Tony Leon, former Leader of the Opposition in the South African Parliament, recently completed a three-year term as South Africa’s ambassador to Argentina, Uruguay and Paraguay.

He was based in Buenos Aires, and this book is a highly entertaining and informative account of his time in South America.  Most people probably think of an ambassador as being a rather stuffy, wing-collared type of individual but Tony Leon is a very different proposition. He comes from KZN, where his father was a Supreme Court judge, and he is a lawyer by training but his many years in politics, plus his innate vitality, have made him a cosmopolitan character.

In The Accidental Ambassador, he does not leak any diplomatic secrets, but he does give many humorous and illuminating insights into life in Buenos Aires, in South America in general, and in the embassy in particular.

He was accompanied by his wife Michal, an Israeli by background, and I can well imagine that they derived great enjoyment from their posting. Here, as examples, are some of the delightful snippets of information that pervade this book (useful if you are thinking of visiting Argentina).

Buenos Aires is not the best place for a vegetarian. The city has 807 steak houses and each Argentine eats an average of 60 kilograms of beef a year.

The citizens have “the extraordinary and exhausting practice of sitting down to dinner at any time between 10m and 11 p.m.  I found it challenging to stay animated and conversational when my normal bedtime was usually about the time that the first course was being cleared”.

The South African embassy is a triplex penthouse (three-storey apartment) on top of a towering building in BA. “Given that the doubtless unsuspecting taxpayers of South Africa provided every diplomat abroad with free housing, a foreign service allowance (in addition to salary) and, in the case of ambassadors, two full-time, live-in domestics, it became apparent why many found such a feather-bedded life abroad so appealing”.

Tony Leon’s ambassadorship included Paraguay, a poorer country. There the then president, Fernando Lugo, a former Roman Catholic bishop, had incurred the displeasure of the Vatican because of his radical views about liberation theology. “More surprising and salacious was the fact – as the local tabloids had published in excruciating, lurid detail – that while still a priest, Lugo had fathered a number of, needless to say illegitimate, children”.

In three years, the Leons had more than 80 live-in guests from South Africa. A 24-hour visitor to BA was Cabinet Minister Lindiwe Sisulu. “Elegantly dressed as ever, she embraced me warmly on arrival.  During her visit we exchanged a warm and easy banter, something that had been notably absent from previous encounters”.

Asked to contribute to a “strategic plan” being drafted by the South African government, Tony Leon and his colleagues produced a seven-page critique and sent it back to head office. “We addressed a range of problems and inconsistencies of foreign policy …. We cited numerous examples of our rights delinquencies”, such as “turning a blind eye to violations of fundamental rights, from Belarus to Zimbabwe. There was no acknowledgment from head office of these carefully drafted views and not a word of them appeared in the revised document”.

And there is a good quote from the Indian ambassador to Argentina:  “An ambassador is someone who thinks twice before he says nothing”.

Tony Leon has been a successful lawyer, politician and diplomat. He is highly articulate, he is a fair-minded commentator, and he has a keen eye for an interesting story.  In a different life he could have been an outstanding newspaperman. Not necessarily a better option, of course.

The Accidental Ambassador by Tony  Leon is published by Picador Africa and retails at R220. – Michael Green

(Michael Green was editor of the Daily News, Durban, for 15 years)