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Let’s Talk Jozi: Parks Tau, will you debate me?

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Herman Mashaba is the leader of ActionSA. Mashaba is the former executive mayor of Johannesburg and founder of the People’s Dialogue.

Last week I laid down a very real and serious challenge to Mayor Parks Tau to enter a moderated debate on the state of Johannesburg’s economy and the living conditions of our people. This is not a party-political gimmick, but a public-spirited initiative.

The purpose of the proposed debate is to engage and energise the electorate on which candidate and party has the best plan to serve the City of Johannesburg’s residents. Who is most likely to create jobs and provide ladders of opportunity to those living in poverty? Who has the most credible plan to position the city as Africa’s leading business, environmentally-sensitive, and cultural hub?

Speaking at a town hall meeting last week, I stressed that I was extending the hand of openness to Mayor Tau across the political divide to debate in real time. Mr Tau is not my enemy. He is my political opponent. Recently, I wrote in Daily Maverick about the growing “democratic deficit” in South Africa between the nation’s leadership, institutions, and voters. My experiences with people on the ground has reinforced my conviction that the nation’s political leadership’s terms of engagement have to be refocused: the voters are the masters, and the politicians are their servants. Too often, this principle is ignored by those in power.

I have proposed an open and moderated debate with an independent moderator for Parks Tau and I to have neutral turf to compete on. The issues are so big and consequential, we cannot deprive voters of the right to cross-examine us both. Arising from this is the fact that this election is shaping up to be the most important in a generation because of the national and regional crises of leadership. We have seen in recent days just how broken the integrity of our national leadership can become.

This is overlaid with the bleak prospect of being devalued to junk status. Whoever emerges as the mayor of South Africa’s largest city this year will play a major role in turning the entire nation’s fortunes around. Never before have local and national interests intersected as profoundly as they do today. The question voters must be able to answer without hesitation in this election is: Who will turn around Joburg’s economy, who will cut out corruption, and who will create jobs?

The ANC in 2015, remember, committed themselves to holding US-style public primary elections to shortlist potential councillor candidates in Joburg. Seeking to emulate the DA’s approach of selecting candidates with solid community credentials, the idea was, apparently, that their decision on the final candidate for each ward would be based on voter reaction. I’ve no idea where they are on this innovation, but surely what is good for the goose is good for the gander. If this principle is correct for selecting councillors, how much more is it correct for the mayoral candidates of the two major parties? After all, only a DA or ANC mayor can realistically emerge after the election.

Mr Tau, in the words of Franklin D Roosevelt, has nothing to fear but fear itself. After all, we’re privileged to live at this time, in this place, in our hard-won democracy. Moreover, my call to debate has solid international precedence.

The Americans, of course, never looked back after John F Kennedy squared off against incumbent vice-president Richard Nixon in 1960. TV viewers thought Kennedy won. Radio listeners thought Nixon won.

Today, however, the really exciting debates are taking place in Africa. In January 2016, President Yoweri Museveni took part in Uganda’s first televised presidential debate against eight opponents, after 30 years in power. This is what a leading Ugandan newspaper editorial said:

Democracy is about the open exchange of ideas and the persuasion of citizens to follow the candidate with the best arguments. In a country where politics is dominated by violence, lies and bribery, television debates offer a good option for voters to assess candidates.”

In 2013, Kenya held its first televised presidential debate, moderated by Julie Gichuru and Linus Kaikai, well-known television journalists. On Twitter, Kenyans gleefully tweeted quotes, making the debate one of the world’s top trending subjects. 

Even tradition-loving Britain had its first ever party leader debate in the 2010 general election. It will forever be known as the “I agree with Nick” debate (a reference to the barnstorming performance of the former Liberal Democrat leader, Nick Clegg). The exercise was repeated last year, despite attempts by the prime minister, David Cameron, to tone down the format after his 2010 bruising. But debate Cameron did. Because, echoing the golden thread in the aforementioned Ugandan editorial, he felt they were a “really good thing for our democracy”. Deliciously, a lady in red stole the show. Her party won nearly every seat in the Scottish parliament turning British politics upside down forever.

What about mayoral contests?

In 2013, New York candidates faced a number of rapid-fire questions about their lives in the city. The front-running candidate with a huge poll lead, Bill de Blasio, faced a rough ride about his alleged links to slumlords. But debate Mr De Blasio did.

In 2015, Chicago had its first mayoral debate between Mayor Rahm Emanuel and Jesus ‘Chuy’ Garcia. Emanuel had the cachet of incumbency and the status of being Barack Obama’s former chief of staff. But debate Mr Emanuel did.

Finally, last Tuesday, London’s mayoral candidates faced off in a moderated debate with the question: “Why Should We Vote For You?” One of the candidates, Zac Goldsmith, replied: “Here’s the thing… anyone in politics, particularly six weeks before an election, can have a plan, anyone can make promises. Those things are cheap in politics. What matters is who can deliver.”

This neatly captures the two big questions on the lips of all voters in Johannesburg: “Why should we vote for you?” And “Who can deliver?”

I’ve set out my credentials and vision for the city. It is now right that the voters and Mr Tau should have the opportunity to cross-examine me – as it is right that the voters and I should be able to cross-examine him. It’s clear that the race to become Mayor of Joburg is a two-horse one. Only the DA or the ANC can emerge as the biggest party after this election. Let’s invigorate the democratic process Mr Tau, and debate.

Don’t shy away from presenting your case and being probed on your record, Mr Tau. This might be the only time that I’ll ask you, Parks Tau, will you join us? DM

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