The top two candidates for the position of Democratic Alliance leader, Mmusi Maimane and Wilmot James, expressed differing opinions on certain pertinent rights issues during a televised debate on Monday night.
A section of the 30-minute debate, which aired on DStv’s kykNet channel, was spent discussing their stances on the death penalty, the judicial system, gay rights and the role of religion.
Rapport editor and Insig presenter Waldimar Pelser questioned James, who is currently the party’s federal leader, on comments he made to the Sunday Times that bail should be denied for rape accused, and how that could be defended from a liberal perspective.
“Bail is not punitive… What I would recommend is to make the default condition in violent crime that bail is not provided unless the accused and the defence can make a case for bail to be granted and the judge makes the final decision,” James responded.
Pelser said the granting of bail was a basic right in the Bill of Rights, and James agreed.
James said in the Sunday Times that bail should be denied “because the chance of a repeat is so grave, especially in a country like ours…”.
Maimane, who is the party’s parliamentary leader, responded on Monday that South Africans “get accused of too many things”.
“Make no mistake, there have been many people who have had allegations against them. It is our Constitutional right that once the allegation has been made, you are innocent until proven guilty,” he said.
Maimane was then questioned over comments he made over the possibility of a referendum on the death penalty.
“If the people want to vote on it, the people must vote on it,” he said, adding that he did not agree with the penalty, however it was the democratic right of people to voice their opinions.
James said Maimane did not understand the Constitution or the Bill of Rights.
“The Bill of Rights, which has the right to life … cannot be changed by a vote in Parliament, it cannot be subject to a referendum,” he said.
“The ultimate right that at least is given to the people of this country is that it is always their voice that must be given expression.”
Maimane was asked by Pelser if God spoke to him on how he led the party in Parliament.
“It’s important, it’s my own personal choice … I still maintain my faith. It is something I must practise – I am entitled to do so,” he responded.
“There is a generalised view that if you have religion, you cannot be liberal, which I think is dangerous. I think the issue here is that I have a personal conviction … but I also understand that my faith is subject to the laws of this country.”
Pelser asked Maimane about Liberty Church, where he is a preacher, and how he could reconcile its stance against gay marriage with the rights enshrined in the Constitution.
“Our church does not prescribe the laws to the country, its government. I don’t agree with everything that is said in our church, but the right exists for them to say that.”
James said there was a strict separation between church and state.
“There is no contradiction between being religious and being a liberal democrat. The choice is the individual’s choice,” he said.
Both commented on outgoing party leader Helen Zille and how she helped the party to grow.
“She captained a very good team,” Maimane said. “We are here to elect a new captain, and the team will take it forward.”
James said he had initially wanted Zille to stay as leader into the forthcoming local government elections.
“She is the party’s biggest brand when it comes to good governance,” he said.
Maimane said he was going to build a version of the party that was more consistent and did not “flip-flop” in its stance on important issues.
“We flip-flop on issues, we support the NDP [National Development Plan] then we don’t. We support redress, then we vote for Bills that are racist fundamentally. That is not what I’m trying to build. I’m trying to build a party that is consistent,” he said.
Maimane’s comment was in response to a question initially asked to James by Pelser on the party initially voting for the Employment Equity Act Amendment Bill in Parliament, only to say it was mistake, and the party’s relationship with the NDP.
“We are becoming an alternate ANC under the current leadership and I aim to set that right,” James said.
Maimane said he was not in Parliament when the decision was made to vote for the “racist” Bill.
“It was an error on our part. We should not have supported a Bill that articulates quotas. What we should be doing is going back to our principles.”
James agreed that the party was wrong in voting for the Bill.
Maimane said he wanted to create a party that communicated a new vision for the country.
“We have to be the party that communicates the vision for South Africa. Historically we have been a party that communicates what we stand against, how we oppose the ANC. Now the function is to articulate a vision for tomorrow.”
James said he had the ability and courage to lead the party in a new direction that focused on communicating with voters.
“[This is] on the basis of being a principled party, of being a unified party, being a growing party, being a party with new ideas and a winning party.”
At the end of the debate both then tackled a question from a Twitter user on whether public disagreements between two DA leaders would confuse voters about the party’s general stance.
Maimane said the best thing about the DA was that members could disagree with each other.
“I think it’s important as a demonstration of democracy. I can take this party forward regardless of the divisions that some seem to suggest are there.”
James said: “When I win on Sunday, I will expect Mr Maimane to unite behind me. And if he wins I will unite behind him.”
Maimane had the last word with a quick “see you on Sunday”.
The new party leader will be elected at the federal congress in Nelson Mandela Bay at the weekend. – News24