TV face-off could resurrect public political debate tradition

Refusing make-up ahead of his televised presidential debate with John F Kennedy in November 1960 was one of Richard Nixon’s many mistakes (for his real biggie, see Watergate).

Kennedy, then 43, had also turned down a chance in the make-up artist’s chair, but he could get away with it. Kennedy had spent September campaigning in California and was tanned, “confident and well rested”, wrote Erika Tyner-Allen.

The visual contrast must have been “dramatic” to the 77-million Americans who were watching the debate, she noted. Nixon, who had spent two weeks in hospital and whose complexion was “still poor”, wore “an ill-fitting shirt and refused make-up to improve his colour and lighten his perpetual five o’clock shadow”.

Kennedy went on to win the election by a wafer-thin margin. Received wisdom to this day blames Nixon’s poor performance in the debate for his loss. It also set the standard for what is today a worldwide tradition of public political engagement.

On April 14 1994, the SABC screened a live debate between incumbent president FW de Klerk and his soon-to-be-successor Nelson Mandela. Unfortunately, these pre-election debates between the now ruling ANC and opposition parties have never been repeated since. All sorts of excuses have been offered: too busy, not available, the dog ate my talking points, and so on. On Monday night a diet version of such a heavyweight debate will be on offer when the Democratic Alliance’s contenders for its top position, Mmusi Maimane and Wilmot James‚ face off on DStv’s kykNET television channel.


It will be chaired by one of South African journalism’s finest minds, Rapport editor Waldimar Pelser, on the current affairs show Insig.

“The Insig team approached both Maimane and James last week and by Saturday they had both agreed,” Pelser said. “We want to give viewers an insight into the personalities, policy leanings and vision of both these men, beyond that which can be gleaned from an op-ed [opinion piece].” Pelser said the debate would be “robust but respectful. I want the candidates to abandon platitudes.”

But unlike debates between, say, the American presidential candidates, the outcome of the Maimane-James debate will be largely academic for viewers, for the time being.

It will come just days before the party’s federal congress in Port Elizabeth, where the new leader of the opposition will be elected on May 9 and 10 by 1 425 party delegates, as current leader Helen Zille rides off into the sunset.

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