There's no debate about it: there should be more debates, and not just when politicians seek our votes

06 May 2018 - 00:00

The last active remnant of the Gupta empire, Andile Mngxitama, has challenged EFF leader Julius Malema to a debate on land. This was after scuffles broke out between EFF and ANC supporters at a dialogue on the land issue at Unisa on Monday.
Malema responded to the commotion, tweeting that he did not think the EFF leadership should participate in any debate that involved "clowns" like Mngxitama "because we legitimise them".
Mngxitama has since challenged EFF leaders to a public debate on land.
While a debate between firebrands might be enthralling to watch, it is doubtful there would be any prospect of genuine dialogue.
I spoke at an event at which members of Mngxitama's Black First Land First group were in attendance and they did everything possible to prevent any meaningful engagement. They heckled the speakers throughout and then hurled insults as we left.
Last year Mngxitama and his goons attempted to storm a media dialogue in Cape Town hosted by the Daily Maverick. They did not succeed in disrupting the event, but made a show of bellowing at and trying to rough up journalists.So it is safe to assume that the raison d'être of the BLF is not public engagement.
From protesting at journalists' homes to acting as human shields for the Guptas and, most recently, leading the Jacob Zuma support squad, the BLF is there to make a spectacle and distract the national conversation - still hammering the script devised by Bell Pottinger.
Mngxitama seems to believe this will earn him votes to gain representation in parliament after next year's elections.
Although he is the wrong person advocating it, Mngxitama is correct that there needs to be public debate on big issues. Apart from debates in parliament, we do not have a culture of issue-driven, vigorous public debates, particularly between the political protagonists.
We tend to have pockets of dialogue, mostly involving academics, analysts and commentators that reinforces their echo chambers.
During election season we have never had the leaders of political parties debate each other so that the voting public can make informed decisions about where the parties stand and how they measure up against each other on big policy issues.
Our election campaigns are all about roadshows, plastering the country with posters and big rallies as a show of force. Many of these campaign methods target people who are already supporters of the party in question and do not really influence those who are undecided or want to change their vote.
There cannot be many people who decide who to vote for based on a speech someone delivers at a rally. Voting choices in South Africa have generally been about the image and historical record of the parties. Because the ANC has been so dominant, the election discourse in recent years has been about whether people vote for the ANC, and if not, why.The 2019 elections might be the first poll where the history of the parties and the spectre of the ANC leader are not the primary issues influencing people's votes.
There is now fluidity in South African politics, with overlaps in policy and the possibility of strategic alliances. While the opposition parties looked to be coalescing into an anti-ANC front after the 2016 local government elections, the situation looks vastly different now.
If President Cyril Ramaphosa continues on his nation-building drive to draw all sectors into a common effort to build and sell the country, some of the opposition parties could decide to partner the ANC on this mission.
As Malema pointed out in an interview with the Sunday Times last week, the ANC has yielded to the EFF's pressure on several issues, including on land and free education, leaving not much daylight between the two parties.
How then do undecided voters make a choice between the two?
There is also much expediency on issues such as social grants and education. The DA's position has always been that there should be reduced dependence on social grants. But Mmusi Maimane said a few weeks ago that if the DA were in power, it would double the amount for child grants.
During the 2014 election campaign, Malema propagated for an increase of the child grant from R300 to R600. So Maimane's wish for it to be raised to R800 means that the DA is actually pitching the child grant higher than its opponents to the left.
By the time we reach the height of the 2019 election campaign, the level of rhetoric is bound to peak.
The best way to determine where everyone stands is to hold public debates where their various party positions can be interrogated.
During the 2016 US presidential elections, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton went head-to-head in three public debates. The first was watched by 84million people, the second by 66.5million and the third by 71.6million.
South Africans deserve to see their leaders take each other on, not only during elections but on the big issues that will determine our future.
Let's talk.

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