I wrote this column in the winter of 1989 – six weeks before the South African general election. The Sunday Times was leading with the story ‘NATS FACE VOTE CRISIS’ as a shock poll was predicting a deadlocked parliament.
I was tasked with accompanying the NP’s Sheila Camerer and the DP’s Tony Leon on the campaign trail in their Johannesburg constituencies. Leon would later become the gifted leader of the re-branded Democratic Alliance where Camerer would join him as an MP.
ALL politics, someone once observed, is based on the indifference of a majority.
With only 47 more days to The Election, JANI ALLAN pounded the pavements with a pair of politicos and came FACE TO FACE with that privileged species, the White Registered Voter.
Sheila Camerer, MP for Rosettenville is quite charming about agreeing to let me tag along with her for a morning’s canvassing in the deep south.
We meet at the NP office in The Hill, the centre of her constituency. The office is a flat in one of those old buildings with the kind of polished stairs that are excellent for slipping on and breaking your neck.
Much to her annoyance Sheila Camerer is stuck with an ancient image of UCT rag queen. Today, a successful attorney, handsome, rather than beautiful, in a vaguely horsey way, Camerer looks as if she’d be happier in the saddle than exchanging recriminations with the CP opposition.
In the election office there is organised chaos. Posters of F W doing his best reassuring leer. Computers, ringing telephones, ziggurats of directories and cheap white teacups. The candidate looks as out of place as an Yves St Laurent in a pile of Toc H jumble.
She looks far more Westcliff (where she lives now) than Rosettenville (where she grew up).
Her canvassing outfit is superb: a leather skirt, marvellously cut tweed jacket and a few carefully chosen pieces of real gold jewellery. Guy Laroche, but she assures me, at least five years old.
‘I’ve tried canvassing in jeans but it doesn’t seem to work.’
Marie, her secretary brings a plate of jam doughnuts and tea. Diana Badenhorst Durrant, Sheila’s mother arrives in a fur coat to help with the telephone canvassing.
‘She grew up in politics’ she tells me proudly, nodding at Sheila who is taking the seventh call in 10 minutes.
‘My late husband was Bob Badenhorst Durrant, one time UP MP for Turffontein.’
‘Few people want an argument,’ Sheila tells me, as I lope after her in a chauffeur-driven BMW that is to be our canvass-mobile.
‘Do I intimidate people because I am so tall? I don’t think so. They all call me Sheila! No respect!’
She laughs gaily: ‘But I do tend to make for the nearest seat. Ben, just drive us down this road. Ben’s my driver-cum-bodyguard.
‘The people I’m going to canvass this morning are blue-collar workers. More vulnerable to the CP. Income tends to have a lot to do with your political beliefs, I think. People who can buy their apartheid support the DP.
‘The people in this house … they tend to moan about the shebeen if I remember. Or they run it. I can’t remember which.’
The first house we stop at is only slightly smaller than its postbox – one of those inspired by the tale of the old woman who lived in a shoe. There’s no-one at home or in the shoe.
Sheila scribbles ‘Met Vriendelike Groete’ on her calling card with an expensive fountain pen and pops it into the vast postshoe.
The next house also appears deserted, but after persistently ringing, a doorbell which plays ‘Santa Lucia’, the lace curtains are parted and a lady in a blue dressing gown and pink pantoffels peers around the door.
‘I’m Sheila Camerer and I’m the MP for Rossettenville,’ says Sheila encouragingly.
Mrs Blue Dressing Gown looks uncertain. The green curlers which are hedge-hogged in her hair bristle nervously: ‘Yes …?
‘I wonder … do you think we could come in for a moment,’ says Sheila hopefully.
Mrs Blue Dressing Gown somewhat reluctantly opens the door and shows us into a room filled with feather flowers, flying ducks, a display cabinet crammed with miniature liquor bottles, Tretchikoff prints and ferns.
Sheila perches on a Gomma-Gomma couch and checks her voters roll.
‘Your husband – his initials are B L, are they?’
‘Yes’ admits Mrs BDG.
‘Are you going to support the NP in the election,’ Sheila asks brightly.
‘Uh … I don’t know.’
‘Is your husband a CP?’ asks Sheila.
‘I really can’t tell …’
‘Well can I count on YOUR support,’ asks Sheila with a big winning smile, Mrs BDG gives an onwillekeuridge laggie. ”Ja-a-a-a- …’
By now the icy wind and practically zero temperature have frozen my ears and turned my fingers blue.
Sheila still looks like one of those Town and Country ads from Tatler. We pick our way through a gaggle of bantam hens (‘much better than dogs’) and knock on the next door which is opened by a close approximation of Mrs Blue Dressing Gown except that she’s wearing a beige dressing gown, a nipple pink cardie and an apron.
Sheila, using her lovely honest, reassuring, warm and friendly face as her credit card, gains entrance for us. This parlour is filled with a remarkably similar collection of feather flowers, ferns, porcelain ducks, and ‘as for me and my home we will serve the Lord’ copper plaques, but it also boasts a piano and two organs.
‘A musical family, I can see,’ says Sheila.
The lady of the house blows noisily into a hankie. ‘Ja, I also play the guitar. Except that I’ve been sick. In Tara. My nerves. They said ‘You don’t look sick, you’re so fat.’
Sheila clucks sympathetically.
‘Mrs B – did you receive our questionnaire about how you felt about the sharing of facilities?’
‘I did and the answer to everything was NO NO NO,’ says Mrs Musical Family. ‘I don’t want natives on the buses! Next thing they stab you!’
If Sheila is rattled, her face shows not a trace of discomfort.
‘Yes … hmmm …. we’ve had a lot of people say the same thing.’ she says soothingly. ‘But can I count on your support in the election? Would you like us to organise a lift for you?’
Mrs Musical Family, happily, is going to vote Nat. ‘Ek het nie baie vertroue in F W nie want hy verkoop ons land aan die swartes, maar ek sal nog Nat vote.
‘My husband? He believes in the cosmos. He doesn’t vote Nat … But I’m telling you the natives can’t live with us. Look at that park with the bokkies. Full of milk cartons and papers!’
SHEILA’s manner is so gentle and charming that every voter we called on promised to vote for her. One grumpy old bearded lady with a vociferous parrot was the closest we came to truculence.
‘I dunno what I’m going to vote. It makes no difference. Voting is for the young people!’ she growled.
Later that day I meet Tony Leon, DP parliamentary candidate for Houghton. We rendevouz in Norwood, the heart of his constituency.
‘Howzit Tony,’ yells a pretty young girl in a Renault.
‘Are you coming to help us’ asks Tony. ‘Ja, sure.’
‘Howzit Tony!’ another group of young people greet him. The owner of a steak-house grabs his hand firmly.
A law lecturer at Wits (commercial law, jurisprudence and constitutional law).
Tony is the kind of whizz-kid Yuppie that every Jewish mamma would die for her daughter to marry.
OY! Is he a gap or what?
Thirty-two. Not married. Nice looking. (Not a beauty, but NICE LOOKING if you know what I’m saying?) Clean living. Ambitious. Told his mother when he was six he was going to be Prime Minister. The grandson of a Rand pioneer and son of Judge Raymond Leon and Mrs Sheila Schiltz.
PLUS the Young Turk is dressed for success: camel coat. Narrow blue and white striped shirt. Good tie.
‘I’m very driven’ he says, striding briskly down the dark pavement. ‘I’ve got a meeting at 8.30, so if you don’t mind I’m going to have to speed this up.’
Can’t you just hear him saying ‘Snap it up, it’s cash!’?
The Norwood constituents on this arctic Thursday night are warmly, smugly and snugly ensconed in front of their M-Net decoders. The night air has the smell of money on its breath.
Tony Leon in full flight is impressive. He says ‘Good evening’ in such a way that it had better be. Assertiveness training must have been coupled with potty training.
The first house we call at is Architectural Digest stuff. Perspex domes, tiled atriums and concealed lighting. A Ben macala on the wall. An elderly lady invites us into the TV room to talk to her husband, the doctor.
The doctor is laid up but mentally sprightly, politically clued up and cracking jokes and asking Tony about various other nominees and candidates.
With supreme efficiency, Tony flips through his voters cards, checks the data he needs to, greets arriving dinner guests, asks if he can count on their support in the election and shakes hands warmly. All of which takes no more than seven seconds.
‘I can talk to about 40 people a night. This is what I call retail politics, as opposed to wholesale politics. My approach? Never condescend. Never patronise.’
As we set off in search of number 196 – he’s parked his spotlessly clean Jetta at the top of the road – he tells me about a fascinating book he’s read about the parallels between Georgian England and South Africa.
Housecalls to the Rabinowitzes, the Cohens, the Goldblatts and others are efficiently handled.
He’s impervious when a pretty young girl and her mother both blush when he asks if he can count on their support.
‘Definitely,’ they sigh in tandem.
Political canvassing? Tony the Leon-hearted loves it. Just up his street you could say.
This column originally appeared in The Sunday Times on 23 July, 1989.