Outside Sandton Convention Centre a handful of protestors declaimed his name; inside former British Prime Minister Tony Blair strolled up to the microphone, in the glare of stage lights, for one of those moments politicians refer to as emotional docking—that connection with the mood of an applauding audience.
“It’s amazing how people start being nice to you once you stop being prime minister, except for archbishops!”
Most people laughed, if slightly nervously, to the reference to the refusal of Nobel Peace Prize winner, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, to speak alongside Blair because of the Iraq war in 2003. One bearded heckler in a suit at the back, shouted something at Blair, before storming out in high dudgeon.
“A bit of protest there, just to make me feel at home,” quipped Blair, ever the smooth one.
Blair hasn’t changed that much, apart from the grey hair, since the last time I interviewed him on a freezing December morning in 1985. That was in the rugged industrial town, Spennymoor, in the heart of his Sedgefield constituency in the Durham coalfields in the north east of England, which I covered for my evening newspaper. I remember the generous grin and the bright eyes; he was a bit like your elder brother’s best mate. On that day, we spoke of plans to create jobs in a region where unemployment had replaced coal mining. The word was even then that he would go far and he had the look of a man with a winning lottery ticket. As far as I know, people still do not have enough jobs in Spennymoor.
Twenty seven years on and Blair is a world name, with that laddish charm polished to perfection. He is understood to earn $300,000-a-time for gigs like the Discovery Invest Leadership Summit in Sandton on August 30. On this one, he needed his boyish charm and nerve amid days of hostile headlines. After all, Archbishop Tutu wanted Blair hauled before the International Criminal Court in The Hague, rather than a stage in Sandton, for his hand in the Iraq war. Writing in Britain’s Observer newspaper, the Archbishop said: “The then leaders of the United States and Great Britain, fabricated the grounds to behave like playground bullies and drive us further apart. They have driven us to the edge of a precipice where we now stand—with the spectre of Syria and Iran before us.”
The Archbishop was referring to the phantom weapons of mass destruction, the grounds for war that could launch an attack on London within the hour, which nine years later have yet to be found in Iraq.
If Blair were a boxer, he could slip a punch; if he were a footballer, he could ride a tackle with ease. The former prime minister sprinkled his speech with safe statements like: “Democracy is not a way of voting, it is a way of thinking.”
Then there were the anecdotes. Blair said he was a technophobe and was not allowed a mobile phone while in office and got one only when he stepped down in 2007. The day after, he sent an SMS to a friend, with his new phone, forgetting that it did not yet carry his name.
“My friend sent me back message saying: ‘Sorry, who are you?’ I thought, ‘It has taken less than 24 hours!’”
The audience laughed along, but went quiet when Blair answered questions from the floor over why he sent the British Army into Iraq.
“I took the decision in good faith and I didn’t take it because I didn’t believe this was a right thing to do I knew it was controversial decision, but I thought it was right. In the end, that is what we elect leaders to do… I never regret removing a brutal dictator, who was a threat. The intelligence reports are on the website before you ask me questions go and read them and see what I was given at the time,” says Blair.
Then there was the question about how he felt that protestors outside the building wanted to make a citizens’ arrest.
“Why don’t they go and protest against the people doing the killing and the bombing and the suicide attacks,” says Blair to a ripple of applause.
There was more applause earlier in the day for Pravin Gordhan, the South African finance minister, and his call for a fight against corruption.
“Let me tell you very clearly, from where I stand and what I see, this is a disease our hospitals are not going to solve. It requires a set of decisions we need to make morally. In South Africa, when you see a bribe it is not the head that must turn, it is your gut. With your guts, you can do something about it,” says Gordhan.
“In South Africa we have too many pretenders who say something in public and another in private. We need to act… We have to fight greed, we have to fight conspicuous consumption… It is the honest people who must come to the front line… To quote the words of Nelson Mandela, ‘A good head and a good heart are always a formidable combination’.’’
One of the surprise packages was former world chess champion, Garry Kasparov, who proved to be a chirpy chap when he is not frowning across the chess board. He opened by congratulating the South African cricket team for beating England, even though he confessed to not knowing the rules.
Kasparov told us his mother put a sign over his bed, when he was a child, saying: “If not you, who else?”
It seemed to work. Kasparov learned from his father how to play chess by the time he was five, by the time he was 12 he was Russian champion and on November 10, 1985, he became the youngest world champion ever—a title he held for 20 years.
In the 1980s, computer pioneers, IBM, pitted its Deep Blue chess-playing computer against Kasparov.
“I won the first match and the second one and then IBM decided to retire Deep Blue. I always wondered what happened to it, I understand it is directing traffic in Philadelphia!” says Kasparov.
The former grandmaster is now a campaigner for democracy on the chess board, that is Russian politics. He told the conference how on, August 17, he was arrested outside the trial of the Russian punk rock band, Pussy Riot.
“You had young girls in an empty church, I stress that, praying to the Virgin Mary to drive Putin away and they got two years in prison. I was there giving an interview to the press and they came to take me away. They threw me in a van and used violence to keep me inside,” says Kasparov.
“The difference between chess and politics is, in chess we have fixed rules and an unpredictable result, in Russia we have the opposite.”
Kasparov hopes chess, with its patience, analysis, strategy and concentration will take the imagination of the young away from video games; like democracy in Russia, this too is a dream.