South Africa

Townhall Debate

Western Cape political candidates slug it out in heated TV debate

ANC provincial elections head, Ebrahim Rassool (Photo: Leila Dougan) / Former Cape Town mayor, Patricia de Lille (Photo: Leila Dougan) / Minister of Community Safety, Alan Winde (Photo: Leila Dougan) / Freedom Front Plus' Peter Marais (Photo: Gallo Images / Netwerk24 / Jaco Marais) / Melikhaya Xego (Photo: Twitter @EFFSouthAfrica)

Televised debates between election candidates have historically been rare events in South Africa. This year, things might be different. In the first of a series of debates broadcast live on eNCA, the Western Cape’s most prominent political candidates battled on Thursday morning to win over a heated Mitchell’s Plain audience. What was evident was a sense of anger and frustration at politicians in general.

The audience for a political debate broadcast live from the Rocklands Civic Centre on Thursday morning had to be repeatedly asked to quieten down in what eNCA moderators termed a “tense” atmosphere.

Heckles were continually directed at all five of the politicians on stage: the DA’s Alan Winde, the ANC’s Ebrahim Rasool, GOOD’s Patricia de Lille, the EFF’s Melikhaya Xego and Peter Marais from the Freedom Front Plus. During closing statements, Winde was unable to complete his remarks due to the volume of audience booing.

The five parties had all brought along sizeable contingents of supporters, with one audience member causing a stir when she claimed that one party had offered people “R50 to put on a T-shirt”. She refused to name the party in question.

The politicians also traded insults among themselves. Rasool questioned Winde’s Struggle credentials, asking if the DA’s Premier candidate “would have had that passion 36 years ago when we met under the banner of the UDF” – but “he wasn’t here”.

Winde in turn referred to the former ANC provincial Premier as “brown envelope Rasool” – a reference to the 2008 scandal which saw Rasool accused of attempting to pay journalists from Independent Media for positive coverage.

De Lille defended herself at one point against the claim that she was laughing at Peter Marais – “I was not laughing at him, I was laughing at a comment made by somebody in the audience” – but also hit out at the DA, telling DA activists: “You must teach your leader to count!”

This remark was apparently in reference to a clip circulating on social media which appears to show DA leader Mmusi Maimane telling supporters: “Forty-four out of 10 South Africans don’t have a job”.

On the basis of the politicians’ performance, it was hard to imagine anyone watching the debate and having their vote swayed as a result.

For the DA, Winde put the focus on the DA’s ability to create jobs, and to run an improved provincial train and police service if given the power to do so by national government.

They cannot run (trains) from Pretoria,” said Winde. “I will fix our public transport!”

The ANC has yet to name a Western Cape Premier candidate, which left provincial election campaign boss Rasool to do the honours on behalf of the party, though he stressed: “I’m certainly not the ANC Premier candidate.”

Rasool made an argument to the audience that some media commentators have also put forward: that despite the “devastating decade” of Zuma rule, votes need to be cast for the ANC because “Ramaphosa needs an enormously strong mandate” if corruption is to be rooted out.

De Lille challenged the DA’s job provision plans, saying: “It’s a lie to say that governments create jobs. It’s the job of the private sector.” The GOOD party leader simultaneously, however, accused Winde of taking credit for jobs created under De Lille’s watch as Cape Town mayor.

EFF provincial spokesperson Xego launched straight into the topic of land, saying that the Western Cape should be ground zero for land expropriation because “everything that happened in South Africa, it started from the Western Cape”.

Xego also accused the DA of counting badly-paid internships as “jobs”, when in reality these were “not sustainable”.

Speaking in Afrikaans, FF+ Premier candidate Peter Marais said that his new party would fight back against the attack on Christian values in schools, referring to the Western Cape Education Department’s controversial proposal to allow alcohol to be sold at school events.

Marais also attacked BBEEE policies for having discriminated against the Western Cape’s coloured population.

Asked by eNCA moderator Michelle Craig for his views on the Cape Flats problems of drugs, gangsterism and service delivery, Marais delivered a strange warning that South Africa’s attempts at reform could end up in the same place as Mikhail Gorbachev’s Soviet Union.

South Africa was a dream that has the risk of perishing because we are trying to be too liberal in outlook,” Marais thundered. “We are trying to enforce a Eurocentric model on an African state!”

When the audience was given a chance to pose questions, the issue of land featured prominently – with De Lille accused of adopting a wishy-washy attitude on the matter.

We cannot fight crime until the land has been given back to the people, and until such time you will get no votes from my constituents,” De Lille was told by a man who said he was a representative of the Khoi-San people.

All politicians proved adept at dodging direct questions put to them. When Winde was asked about the glaring inequality in Cape Town, he deflected to the DA’s project to confiscate illegal firearms.

When De Lille was asked by a man in a DA T-shirt whether the GOOD party would go into coalition with the ANC, “yes or no”, she slammed the question as typical of “DA fear politics”.

Said De Lille: “The DA is in coalition with the EFF in Joburg and in Tshwane; the DA was in coalition with the ANC in Kannaland – you are opportunists!”

Rasool, in a curious turn of phrase, said that the DA’s coalitions with the EFF were an example of what happens when “populism becomes a sexually-transmitted disease”.

But Xego strongly denied that EFF-DA co-operation amounted to a coalition at all.

We are just in charge of the plug,” Xego explained. “If the DA doesn’t do what we want them to do, we pull the plug.”

One particular audience member, a resident of Mitchell’s Plain, fired off a series of pointed questions to each politician in turn.

To Winde: Why does Mitchell’s Plain get a “fraction” of the money given to wealthier areas?

To Rasool: Why was the former ANC premier “so quiet” after former ANC spokesperson Jimmy Manyi’s notorious comments that the Western Cape had an “over-supply” of coloured people?

To De Lille: When she was mayor of Cape Town, what did she do to improve the lives of people on the Cape Flats?

To Xego: What gave the EFF the right to talk about land in the Western Cape, since when “I checked the history books it was our land”?

To Marais: Could he be trusted after party-hopping from the Independent Civic Organisation of South Africa (Icosa) to the Freedom Front Plus?

These inquiries were not met with any substantive responses from the politicians in the spotlight. After 90 minutes of noise, the allocated debate time was up.

eNCA deserves credit for trying to give South African audiences a better sense of exactly who and what they are voting for in the May elections, outside of party leaders. But if the first debate is anything to go by, the answers to those questions may prove depressing for many. DM