South Africa

Political TV debates: Can we have some more?

By Rebecca Davis 4 November 2013

A debate between the DA and ANC hosted on SABC on Sunday night didn’t offer much more than the opportunity to see Western Cape Public Works MEC, Robin Carlisle, and ANC Western Cape chair, Marius Fransman, yelling over each other in front of a baying audience. Nonetheless, it was a refreshing spectacle in a country where the ruling party has been resistant to this kind of event. Let’s have more televised political debates, writes REBECCA DAVIS.

The ANC is wary about sending its leaders into battle in the form of public debates outside of Parliament. DA leader Helen Zille has repeatedly challenged President Jacob Zuma to debate her publicly on policy matters, and repeatedly been turned down. Former President Thabo Mbeki was similarly opposed to the idea. In an interesting article from 2007, former DA strategist, Gareth van Onselen, suggested that this might stem from Mbeki’s nightmarish experience in 1994, when he was shouted down by a blustery Pik Botha in a debate on the SABC TV show Agenda.

Van Onselen recalled: “Putting the final touches on a debate which verged on farce, Botha told viewers, ‘To National Party supporters I say drive safely. To those who are not – who am I to tell you how to drive?’”

The Botha-Mbeki debate was the curtain-raiser to the real deal, Nelson Mandela vs. FW De Klerk: an internationally-broadcast debate which De Klerk had proposed, and which seems to have been more significant for its symbolism than its content. Following the Botha debacle, Mbeki refused to debate anyone in the run-up to the 1999 elections, and also refused a debate challenge from DA leader Tony Leon before the 2004 elections. Zuma, as mentioned, has been similarly recalcitrant on this score.

So it was pleasant to learn that the SABC would be hosting a debate on Sunday evening to tackle the issue of recent Western Cape unrest, even if the notifications in this regard were confusing. The ANC sent out a media text informing journalists that Marius Fransman would be debating Western Cape Premier Helen Zille. The ANC’s Western Cape Twitter account also subsequently tweeted that it would be Zille in the debating hot-seat. Not according to Zille, who tweeted sharply back: “What debate? I was not scheduled for any debate. Yet another ANC lie.”

When the Daily Maverick asked Zille’s spokesperson Zak Mbhele on Twitter why Zille was not, indeed, debating Fransman, Mbhele replied: “The [Western Cape] ANC chairperson must debate the [Western Cape] DA chairperson (or his/her designate)…” While seeming to acknowledge that there were no formal rules in this regard, Mbhele said it made sense: “One couldn’t expect Zuma in his capacity as ANC president to debate a DA provincial leader, no?”

The DA leader in the Western Cape is Ivan Meyer, who might have then seemed like the most logical person to represent the party in the debate, but for unknown reasons the baton was passed to Public Works and Transport MEC Robin Carlisle. Carlisle is a well-known and senior politician, but given the rare opportunity to go head-to-head with the ANC on national TV, perhaps the party should have thought twice about the aesthetic effect of having Fransman face off against a grey-haired white man.

Perhaps Carlisle was given the nod because he occupies the position within provincial government which Fransman held when the ANC ran the Western Cape. Or perhaps he was sent into battle because Carlisle and Fransman are old foes. In 2011, Carlisle accused Fransman of “political gutlessness”, and described him – in the context of ANC provincial structures – as “King Herod” in charge of the “local creche”. It’s fair to say the debate was never likely to be characterised by high levels of mutual civility.

The debate’s broadcast was hamstrung by dodgy production values, including weak sound and the fact that there were seemingly no producers on the floor to manage the increasingly rowdy studio audience. Host Vuyo Mvoko was left to beg, increasingly heartrendingly, for the audience to allow speakers to be heard. Half the audience were ANC supporters and half DA (a formula which the Mandela-De Klerk debate also followed). On the plus side, this made for a passionate and engaged audience. On the downside, less partisan viewers might have asked more interesting questions, rather than merely carrying out point-scoring exercises when the microphone was handed to them. One was also left with the suspicion that certain questions had been scripted for participants in advance by ANC officials.

Relatively little time was spent discussing last week’s looting and violence in the Cape Town CBD, which was the ostensible catalyst for the debate. Instead, the discussion unravelled into a grievance-airing session, with accusations and counter-accusations hurled between the two politicians. It can’t have taken more than five minutes for both men to accuse the other of racism.

Also present, as an awkward third wheel, was the Western Cape’s chief electoral officer Courtney Sampson. Sampson was barely allowed to talk, but when he was, imparted various sensible thoughts about the need for an environment of tolerance and peace in the run-up to the elections. By the end of the debate he sounded significantly more anxious than when it began, saying: “We must be very careful in how we engage with the general public. We must be careful that we don’t turn people away from the polls by screaming and shouting.”

Fransman is a consummate politician, which is to say that he is an arch-populist who relies on rhetorical appeals to emotion and race. He has a questionable commitment to the strictest standards of accuracy in his public statements. In October Carlisle challenged Fransman to a public debate over Fransman’s claims that “95 to 98” percent of properties rented by the provincial government were owned by white people “and, in particular, also people in the Jewish community”. Carlisle responded by releasing a list of the government’s biggest leases, to show that a number of the city’s major office blocks are owned by predominantly black-owned entities.

Carlisle brought the matter up during the debate and accused Fransman of being knowingly deceitful on the topic, since Fransman would have dealt with the relevant properties’ leases while serving as Public Works MEC. But Fransman has enthusiastically adopted the Mac Maharaj motto – Admit Nothing; Never Apologise – and continued to claim implacably that “90%” of the land in Cape Town is in white commercial hands.

“And Jews?” threw back Carlisle, which gives you some idea as to the level of the debate.

On the matter of Helen Zille’s booing at Saldanha last week in the presence of Jacob Zuma, Fransman claimed that Zille had instigated the crowd’s response deliberately. Brandishing around a piece of paper as evidence, which he seemed to claim was either Zille’s speech or notes for her speech, Fransman pointed to the fact that Zille had pre-scripted an address making mention of the abuse of state resources and ANC composition of the audience. This was, Fransman said, the “politics of deception”.

It’s a phrase Fransman clearly enjoys, because he repeated it several times. He played a sneaky game with regards to the violence and looting last week, disavowing any ANC involvement while simultaneously hinting that such actions were the inevitable end-product of DA anti-poor policies. He criticised Helen Zille for not having appeared before the crowd last Wednesday to accept their memorandum, and also described himself as “disgusted” by Cape Town Mayor Patricia de Lille’s appearance in Khayelitsha in June wearing a mask to protect herself from the smell of faeces around the communal toilets.

Carlisle focused his own attack on Fransman’s track record in governance, and particularly the R500 million he claims Fransman misused while in his position as transport and public works MEC. He contrasted the ANC’s performance with the DA’s, and accused the ANC of “stealing the people’s money”. But much of the debate felt fairly personal, with Carlisle even questioning why Fransman only joined the ANC in 1990.

It wasn’t particularly edifying viewing. It was scrappy, ill-tempered, and shouty. It probably changed nobody’s minds about where they’d be putting their X in April 2014, since it relied on the same old arguments (the DA is racist and anti-poor, vs. the DA are tremendously efficient administrators and the ANC squanders public resources). But the fact that it happened is a good thing for the health of our democracy. Journalists and significant business individuals are some of the only people who regularly interact with politicians and get to form meaningful impressions of what they are like and how they engage the public. More exposure to our politicians in the act of debate, via the medium of TV, may be depressing – but it can also be educational. DM

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Photo: Marinus Fransman (Sapa)

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