The case for real debate in Cape Town

On Friday April 15 1994, Nelson Mandela and FW de Klerk participated in the first debate of the new democratic South Africa. The televised event could hardly be called a debate, as everyone knew, including FW de Klerk, that Nelson Mandela would win the election.

What made the event unique, as the Independent reported at the time, was the tension between the candidates’ need to confront each other as rivals for the same political office and the recognition that they had been and would remain partners in an ambitious project of national unity.

Since the Mandela era, there have been few other political debates at the national, provincial or local levels. This has largely been due to the electoral dominance of the African National Congress (ANC) and the weakness of all opposition parties. Candidates have faced little pressure from the voting public to engage in informative pre-election debates in order to put forward clearly articulated and differentiated visions for the future.

However, there are important shifts taking place among the South African electorate, which underscore the need for sharp political debates between candidates. Statistics compiled from the last 15 years show that a large percentage of eligible voters are not participating in South Africa’s political contests and even remain unregistered.

Floating voters
At a national level, Collette Schulz-Herzenberg of the Institute for Security Studies, has pointed out that while the governing party has enjoyed increasing electoral margins — from 63% in 1994 to 66% in 2009 — the number of people voting for the ANC, in real terms, has decreased from 54% to 39% over the same period. Similarly, the opposition bloc has lost almost one-half of its active vote share, declining from 32% in 1994 to 17% in 2004, and then rebounding slightly to 20% in 2009. These figures show a rise in “independent” or “floating voters” — a largely unpredictable portion of the electorate that has the potential to transform the political scene through their participation.

At a local level, voter turnout is in even worse shape, with only 48,06% of the electorate participating in 2000 and 48,4% in 2006. Although municipalities should be the most accessible form of government to local constituencies, many citizens feel that their needs and concerns have not been adequately addressed, particularly in relation to service delivery.

According to a joint Independent Electoral Commission/Human Sciences Research Council survey, where respondents were asked to indicate their level of satisfaction with local government, only 43% of South Africans are “satisfied” or “strongly satisfied”, leaving 57% “neutral” or “dissatisfied”. With numbers like these, it seems likely that more and more previously party-loyal voters will become independents.

What all this means is that there is a substantial bloc of floating voters that could be mobilised to participate in the 2011 elections. The current South African situation harkens back to the United States elections of 2008, when Barack Obama successfully rallied the support of eligible, yet previously disenfranchised, American voters to win the presidency. Independents are very important in highly contested geographic areas where partisan groups are relatively equal in size. In such places, voter turnout can actually win or lose an election for a particular party. However, this political season the electoral discourse has been so paltry and vague that no candidate seems to have inspired or activated the currently apathetic voting population.

Shallowness of debate
The shallowness of political debate has been particularly disappointing in Cape Town, which is perhaps the most equally matched political contest of 2011. The Democratic Alliance’s (DA) Patricia de Lille and ANC’s Tony Ehrenreich are both high-powered mayoral candidates, with long records of public service, trade union credentials and substantial local constituencies. Most citizens want access to detailed information about these candidates, the parties they represent, and the policies they propose.

Unfortunately, political posters strapped to lamp posts and campaign disputes splashed across media headlines have become the norm — and there has been no concerted effort by either of these candidates to stand together on the same platform and demonstrate why voters should support them. Any interaction between candidates has consisted of mud-slinging and pointing out failures — lest we forget that both parties have delivered “open” toilets to constituencies — rather than constructive discussion of actual policies for development. It is evident that South Africa is in dire need of robust public debates, where citizens can challenge the standard political rhetoric, and candidates can offer plans for our collective urban future.

While there have been attempts from several corners to organise events where the Cape Town mayoral candidates to go head-to-head, each has come with its own set of challenges and disappointments. The SABC’s Election Debates dedicated one episode to Cape Town’s candidates. The ANC, DA, Congress of the People and African Christian Democratic Party were given the opportunity to wax lyrical about the inequities in service delivery across the city, but the format excluded any opportunity for genuine exchange. Participants did not have the opportunity to directly challenge each other’s policies nor respond to accusations issued against them. Most tellingly, the fifty-minute show only allowed for four rounds of questions.

Idasa also hosted a public dialogue with Cape Town’s mayoral candidates. However, as is the usual practice of incumbent parties, the DA sent a lower-level party official as a stand-in for Patricia de Lille. This behaviour should simply not be acceptable in a vibrant and contested electoral environment.

Empty platitudes
What we, as Cape Town, need is a real political debate, between the strongest parties, held in a central location with space for a thousand people to attend. We need all major media outlets, newspapers, television and radio stations to broadcast the debate live to the widest possible audience. We need audio and video material from the debate to be accessible via the internet after the fact. And, we need to ensure that citizens from local civil society organisations, social movements and neighbourhoods across the city are present.

Candidates should not be able to make prepared statements filled with empty platitudes and accusations, but should spend a full 90 minutes answering and rebutting citizen queries. The Institute for Security Studies attempted to organise such a debate; however, one of the large parties seemed unwilling to participate. This may either reflect poor strategic decision-making in the midst of a campaign, or a possible unwillingness to engage in hard talk with other candidates and the electorate.

The electorate must demand sophisticated political debate, so that parties and candidates are forced to refine their political discourse and respond with clearly articulated policies. Voters could then move beyond candidate popularity and historical loyalty to cast their ballots based on who will devote the largest percentage of the budget to service delivery or who has come up with the most comprehensive plan for public transportation, sanitation, water and housing — issues of real importance to the electorate. Questions should be tailored to impel candidates to offer detailed propositions for Cape Town’s future development instead of insubstantial promises that can never be fulfilled.

Most importantly, whatever is said in such a public forum could then be used to hold elected representatives to account after 100 days in office, after two years in office and at the end of the term. Without robust political debate and policy alternatives, how can citizens think retrospectively when judging the incumbent party’s performance at election time — or alternatively, think prospectively about the future when assessing all the options on offer from candidates? Without policy information, debate and detail, electoral discourse will always remain in the toilet.

Erin Torkelson and Hopolang Selebalo are from the Institute for Security Studies

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