We have repeatedly heard opposition parties complain that the ruling party’s refusal of a public debate among its presidential candidates severely restricts the discourse of South African politics. It does not help, of course, that many of our expectations of elections have become tinged by the cleverly engineered processes we see on American television and cinema.
After last Monday’s episode of The Fixer, at least one Twitter user complained that the depiction of a presidential candidate debate in the fictitious world of Olivia Pope would further encourage calls for a South African iteration featuring Jacob Zuma, Helen Zille, Julius Malema et al.
That particular complaint was a snide rejoinder to the Democratic Alliance which has been especially persistent in its invitations to President Zuma to a public debate.
When Western Cape Premier Zille invited the president to a debate last month she wrote, “In real time, a live audience would be able to cross-examine us both about how we would create the right conditions for economic growth and job creation. Live presidential candidate debates are becoming common across Africa”.
Responding to the invitation, Zuma told a rally in Motherwell Zille was not senior enough to debate him.
“There is no president in the DA. She must ask other premiers at her level to have a debate,” Zuma said.
Fascinating as that statement is, Zuma also turned down an invitation to a debate on the state of the economy in August last year.
And The Fixer quite aside, debate is an essential tenet of elections in a democratic society. Policies must be publicly debated.
But beneath the ruckus over who is, and who is not, ready to commit to a public debate, what is being overlooked is that we are already having a debate among the presidential candidates of this election.
Of course, there has not been the drama of carefully rehearsed ripostes on a well-lit stage but that does not mean that a debate is not happening.
Politicians bearing T-shirts, berets and verbal brickbat have been conducting the ritual once-every-five-years conversation with voters, posters promising change, or more of the same are smiling down at us, television adverts are being aired (or allegedly censored), social media is being filled with feisty political conversation, and then there are the formal debates, albeit sans the active participation of President Zuma, that are happening, that are filtered down to a greater audience through the media.
The sum total of these discussions, confrontations and campaigns may be seen to constitute a public debate on this year’s election. The different ways in which political parties articulate their positions and policies, the meanings and images which are put into circulation and fought over contribute to a greater debate about who should be leading this country, a debate that essentially articulates a struggle for power.
Politics is primarily concerned with power. And power is communicated, negotiated, maintained through speeches, slogans and the statements of politicians. Power is communicated through language.
And the language that is used for political gain is a site of struggle in which meanings are produced, sustained and challenged.
So when Premier Zille picks up from Gwede Mantashe, who recently compared Zuma to the head of a snake, that particular struggle becomes clear.
“President Jacob Zuma is the head of a snake, and we know that one must strike at the head of a snake with a weapon. In a democracy, your vote is your weapon – not violence. Therefore, on 7th May, use your vote as your weapon to get rid of the snake,” Zille is reported to have said.
This is the level of political discourse in South Africa. This is the debate we are having among our presidential candidates. But what exactly is it about?
Khadija Patel is a writing fellow at the University of Witwatersrand’s Institute for Social and Economic Research (Wiser).
Orginally published on EWN