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Why I am challenging John Steenhuisen to a public debate

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Mbali Ntuli, MPL, is a candidate for the federal leadership of the DA.

Publicly televised debates should become an intrinsic part of our political party culture. In a country where politicians operate from the shadows and closely guard public access to their theatre of operations, the Democratic Alliance should invite the people in, for this is the very thing that keeps politics open and honest.

Democracy dies in darkness. It dies when we do not hold it open or when we are complacent and do not demand it to continually be kept transparent. It dies when we place it under the care of those who seek to subvert it for their own selfish ends. In South Africa, we have a terrible habit of doing precisely this.

The leadership crisis which plagues this country is not premised on any one political party, but rather on our broken political culture, one which we willingly accept and perpetuate. We do not demand transparency and openness from our leaders and so we do not get it from them. This is to the point that the mere prospect of true political accountability is met with consternation and deep animus. So this is the social contract we deem permissible with those whom we mandate to govern us. It is precisely this which we consented to under the Jacob Zuma presidency, the legacy of which will haunt us for many years to come.

Our constitutional democracy is a republic, a word derived from the Latin term res publica, literally meaning “public matter”. It’s an idea which is as old as civilisation itself, premised on the notion that democracy is not transactional, rather that it requires an active and informed citizenry. And that if we are permitted to learn the true character of those who govern us by holding them accountable in the public space, we will always be able to ensure we vote for and elect those who are best suited to govern over us, or so the theory goes.

And so in South Africa, we have a democracy, but we do not hold our leaders accountable and we don’t do it in the manner which matters the most. Which is to scrutinise the way in which we choose our leaders to begin with. We would not permit a person who failed their medical exam to perform open-heart surgery on us. So why do we allow people who are not qualified to lead us to do so?

On Monday 17 August 2020, I held a press conference in Durban challenging the incumbent interim Federal Leader of the Democratic Alliance, John Steenhuisen, to four live publicly televised debates. As a liberal, I did not do this to maim Mr Steenhuisen. Nor Mr John Moodey by omitting him in name, but not in spirit. I did it for the benefit of the party.

I did what we should be demanding of all our political parties and that is that we engage in a process that places the leaders we are to select under proper scrutiny. That we vet and test their character publicly before we offer them the very substantial mandate of permitting them to lead us. To see who they really are, what they believe and what their raw ideological viewpoints are beyond the manicured speeches and staged photo ops.

Their moral and ethical character matters. What they believe matters. It completely infuses and pervades the entire political structure and, in a very real sense, the private and public lives of our leaders and their conduct at all times are intrinsically linked and cannot truly be separated. 

These races are not for fragile egos or weak minds that might need protection. It is supposed to test those who submit themselves to the scrutiny of the process. It is by its very nature invasive and harsh and unforgiving. And so it should be. This is to elect our highest office.

Having a series of live televised public debates is hardly controversial. Primary debates are the norm in many mature democracies around the world. The best example of this is in the United States where the Democrats, Republicans and even Independent candidates all engage in many rounds of publicly televised primary debates to select their leaders. At the end of this process, the incumbent US president and the presumptive nominee of the opposing party will then partake in presidential debates.

On the very same basis, Former DA Federal Leader, Mmusi Maimane, and Dr Wilmot James contested a debate just like this in 2015. They did it because they intrinsically understood that in order to be handed the high office of DA Federal Leader this kind of scrutiny is healthy, but more importantly, that it is essential for the strength of any party which hopes to endure.

For the DA, our liberal culture embraces debate, the considering of opinions and contrasting the plurality of ideas, on an equal and fair platform, that are different from one’s own, for they are the centrepiece of our ideological premise.

The contestation to become the leader of any political party is not supposed to be a comfortable or easy experience, unless of course, it is a dictatorship in which dissent is explicitly forbidden. In the Democratic Alliance, we do not preside over the coronation of autocratic monarchs or demagogues, to bring to power tyrannical personality cults, or the egotistical fiefdoms of the few. Our liberal order is designed specifically to forestall the cultivation of a monocultural intelligentsia. It is premised on openness and the diversity of opinion so that the best ideas may succeed and endure to serve as the vanguard against the fostering of an ideological Gestapo.

These races are not for fragile egos or weak minds that might need protection. It is supposed to test those who submit themselves to the scrutiny of the process. It is by its very nature invasive and harsh and unforgiving. And so it should be. This is to elect our highest office.

Publicly televised debates should become an intrinsic part of our political party culture. In a country where politicians operate from the shadows and closely guard public access to their theatre of operations, the DA should invite the people in for this is the very thing that keeps politics open and honest. 

To lead a party demands that we select from among us the best and those of the highest calibre of individual we can bear. This is, for all intents and purposes, the person who would prospectively become our next president. So they would need to be a person who can withstand and endure the strong political currents both within their party and out of it. The buck must stop with them and they must bear responsibility for what their party does and the moral and ethical character their leadership engenders during their term of office.

It would be a point of significant regression were it to be that a liberal party, especially those who wish to lead one, determined that their ideology and internal culture was so fragile and weak that it could not withstand the scrutiny of a public debate process when electing their most public representatives. 

Public debate has the innate knack of exposing weak political ideology and policy imperatives. If a politician is fearful to partake in public debate out of fear that their political ideology will be rejected in the open market of ideas beyond their narrow political ecosystem and echo chambers, that is not because the process is unfair, rather that is exactly what public debate is designed to expose.

It is for this reason politicians avoid scrutiny, claim victimhood, hide behind their parties and do not subject themselves to open public debate. They simply do not want to be held accountable and exposed for their intellectual bankruptcy. If you have bad ideas they should not be allowed to be elected into power. It is this very process which is the safeguard between society and sociopathy. And indeed, it is this very process, or the lack thereof, that is to blame for our present leadership crisis in South Africa. If we had to properly assess who we were electing in any of our major parties, we would not be in the mess we are in right now.

Too often our internal politics are one of personality cults and sycophancy. Of proximity and power and access to privilege. All of which disenfranchises constituent political party members which, in turn, subverts democracy then ultimately harms South Africa because we don’t end up with the type of leaders we deserve. Rather those who can best game the system and ensure the status quo remains exactly the same, each election cycle. 

In order for the DA to modernise and boldly take itself into the 21st century, it will need to evolve and adapt its understanding of the public role beyond one of purely existing to be an electorate. 

In the end, the good governance of the DA does not depend on its Federal Constitution, it is only enabled by it. The good governance of the DA depends critically upon the personal qualities of those it places in positions of power and leadership and likewise, the machinery of the party is always subordinate to the will of those who administer the party machinery. The most important element of matters concerning the governance of the DA, therefore, is the method of choosing its leaders.

Publicly televised debates should become an intrinsic part of our political party culture. In a country where politicians operate from the shadows and closely guard public access to their theatre of operations, the DA should invite the people in for this is the very thing that keeps politics open and honest. 

We cannot opine about the need for openness and transparency, but then deny it when it comes to the very engine which drives the party and expands our ideological resonance in the population. 

Public debates also serve a far greater purpose. They create a necessary opportunity to invite those who would never have considered or looked in the direction of your party a window through which to candidly challenge their assumptions and views. This is in order to genuinely consider your organisation as an option; in a manner that is neither patronising nor staged, but is actually the most authentic and genuine of all.

This is the power of public debate. Being open and transparent is legitimising. And through legitimacy comes power.

On 31 October and 1 November 2020, the DA will conduct its Federal Congress where it will elect a federal leader. It will be broadcast and viewable publicly both on television and on social media. Though this is an entirely internal DA affair, it is certainly not a private one and the reason for that is because it is in the national interest to be transparent and open about it.

Calling for a series of publicly televised debates featuring the candidates which the DA will very publicly elect to become their federal leader at Congress is neither controversial nor provocative. Like the Federal Congress, it is in the national interest to do so. To conduct open televised debates does, in no way, injure the party and the mere viewing of such debates by the public is perfectly in line with transparent, credible, free and fair election processes.

Both the public and Federal Congress delegates deserve to see the calibre of candidates we field, to be able to assess who would not only become federal leader, but prospectively be the next president. These types of debates are exactly what we should be doing and exactly the type of scrutiny under which we should be placing our politicians. It is exactly the platform the DA’s presiding officers should be seeking to facilitate for their leadership race as the official Opposition of the Republic of South Africa.

When I speak of a new way, a better DA, this is exactly what I mean. Openness and transparency. Accountability. Moral and ethical leadership.

Robust contestation of the federal leadership race is essential and healthy for the party. That is why these debates I have called for are so vital. They will allow the delegates to properly exercise their democratic rights and to be fully informed. To develop true pictures of who they are really electing so that when they make their voting decisions they are making them based on accurate perceptions of the character of those candidates, and not just good PR.

In the end, the good governance of the DA does not depend on its Federal Constitution, it is only enabled by it. The good governance of the DA depends critically upon the personal qualities of those it places in positions of power and leadership and likewise, the machinery of the party is always subordinate to the will of those who administer the party machinery. The most important element of matters concerning the governance of the DA, therefore, is the method of choosing its leaders.

Public debate allows us to act with conscience and to choose well. Let us do so.

Today, 24 August 2020, is the final day for Mr Steenhuisen to accept my challenge.

I hope he will. DM

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