South Africa

Unisa: An election debate to forget

By Greg Nicolson 18 March 2014

As elections near, political parties are rolling out leaders on an endless cycle of public debates (not President Zuma, of course). GREG NICOLSON went to see the ANC, Economic Freedom Fighters (EFF), Democratic Alliance (DA), United Democratic Movement (UDM), Cope and the African Christian Democratic Party (ACDP) at Unisa, Pretoria, on Monday night and found little of interest but a lot of Nkandla questions and an unlikely victor.

The politicians at the debate presented a gallery of the ANC in the last 20 years. The EFF’s Floyd Shivambu sat with Cope General Secretary Lyndall Shope-Malofe to his right. The ANC’s Thoko Didiza was next, flanked by UDM President Bantu Holomisa. Cope leader Mosiuoa Lekota and ANC chairperson Baleka Mbete were billed to appear but both sent colleagues instead. Former ANC treasurer Mathews Phosa was in the front row in his role on the university’s council. The DA’s Mmusi Maimane and the ACDP’s Joanne Downs filled the last two chairs, joining Didiza as the only panelists not expelled or defected from the governing party.

The opposition parties took similar lines: South Africa is a better place than it was 20 years ago, but democracy and citizens’ livelihoods is threatened by corruption and the weakening of state institutions and the failure to address poverty, inequality and unemployment, specifically among black South Africans.

The fact that we have many young South Africans who do not think it will make a difference whether they register to vote or not is an indictment on our democracy,” said Shope-Malofe.

It is sad that so many South Africans do not have a good story to tell,” Holomisa added, reading a speech from the lectern. The country lacks visionary leaders, has turned into a welfare state, uses police to quell protests, and the ANC has treated the rule of law with indifference, as exemplified by Zuma not handing over the Spy Tapes and the recent attacks on the Public Protector, added the UDM leader.

We must decide what future we want to bequeath to young South Africans going forward,” said Maimane. Most South Africans are still landless, he acknowledged, and the landless are mostly black. It drew cheers from the crowd, with students split into their party affiliations. Maimane said it’s not worth responding to a question on why the DA logo includes the colour black. “Don’t hire cadres to police other cadres,” he responded to a question on corruption and crime.

mmusi-and-bantu.jpg

Photo: UDM’s Bantu Holomisa and the DA’s Mmusi Maimane. (Thapelo Lekgowa)

Shivambu defended the EFF’s plan to nationalise the land and strategic resources, particularly in mining, claiming benefication and industrialisation can be increased without harming the country’s position in the international economy. Although close to Maimane in age, Shivambu played the youngster on stage, joking with the crowd. He was scared to come to the debate because the last time he saw an ANC Moses Kotane Volunteer Brigade bib, worn by Didiza, was in a picture from Bekkersdal where an ANC member was carrying a gun. “Let us not worry about impeachment,” he said to questions on what will happen if the Public Protector finds Zuma misled Parliament on Nkandla, “[Zuma] is left with only two months. We are going to win the 7 May elections.”

While acknowledging the progress made by the ANC, opposition parties slammed its recent track record. Didiza did her best to focus on the positives, present nuanced arguments and evade the tricky questions. “Does the ANC have the capacity to restore quality leadership? I would say yes.” On the achievements and challenges of the last 20 years, Didiza focused mainly on the period before and during the transition. She commended the open debate, a sign in itself of progress.

But the ANC faced multiple questions on the Public Protector’s Nkandla report, which will be released on Wednesday. “We can’t speculate about what the report says,” the former minister told the audience. It must be remembered, Didiza argued, “[w]here a report was made and where corroboration was made the ANC took a decision.”

Maimane interjected, “So like Dina Pule?”

The DA’s candidate for Gauteng premier was referring to the former communications minister, who herself faced an adverse Public Protector’s report and was forced to apologise for misleading Parliament but has been included in the ANC’s nomination list to return to the National Assembly. Shivambu also attacked the ANC’s lists, questioning the credibility of candidates like John Block, Humphrey Mmemezi and others. “You cannot trust the ANC with the future of this country… More than 50% of the people on those lists are not credible people,” he said, claiming inside knowledge.

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Photo: EFF’s Floyd Shivambu (Thapelo Lekgowa)

In comparison to some of the other parties, the ANC had only a small contingent of supporters in party colours, but many more in normal clothing. “Julius!” they yelled at the EFF leader. “What about Julius?” they asked, referring to EFF leader Julius Malema, who faces fraud charges related to a Limpopo roads tender and has been dealt a provisional sequestration order for not paying his taxes.

Without anyone pressing the leaders on specific issues and following up on their claims, the debate allowed them to launch into mini manifesto speeches. Despite their rhetoric, the ANC, Cope and EFF looked like different factions of the same organisation, trying to leverage the different debates the ANC’s been having for the last 20 years, but each lacking credibility. Maimane’s comments were well received, but too rehearsed. The ACDP’s Downs scored a few claps but then seemed nostalgic for the imaginary old days when morals were strong and corruption was frowned upon.

The crowd was divided, with EFF supporters yelling, “Nkandla one side. E-tolls one side. Shower one side,” when party supporters were taking their seats. But the majority were young black students. They appreciated those who reflected the difficulty of their situation – growing up in divided Rainbow Nation, struggling for decent education, knowing job prospects are limited for them and much more likely for white and wealthy youth.

Holomisa, who unlike his peers seemed to know he’s destined to lead a minority party (even Downs talked of a potential “ACDP government”) came out strongest, lecturing on the state of South Africa rather than pitching for votes. “Whoever wins the elections after this May needs to understand that our people are impatient,” he advised. The level of protests is a sign a second revolution could be coming and people won’t stand by the ANC or the president forever, especially if the party attacks the office of the Public Protector, he warned. “Please respect us, respect South Africa, respect that office.” DM

Photo: Cope General Secretary Lyndall Shope-Malofe & the ANC’s Thoko Didiza. (Thapelo Lekgowa)

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