In the past elections these debates were choreographed with followers asking or affirming their parties through a set of friendly questions to the leadership – with applause from party loyalists and booing by the opposition.
This time around the format taken is one where citizens talk among themselves as experts of their own destiny. When politicians are involved, they are in attendance with analysts and commentators at the same floor level. This has levelled the playing field and created the essential moment needed for South Africa to think through what happened to it.
The mood is increasingly sombre as the revelations from the ongoing commissions of inquiry have added a theatre for people's engagement.
Two-and-a-half years ago when former deputy finance minister Mcebisi Jonas blew the lead on the Guptas, the ruling party instructed that this matter should be reported to itself in order to address it. Little came out of the party from the presentation of Jonas, ex-Government Communication and Information System (GCIS) chief Themba Maseko and others.
It is difficult to fathom how the party so implicated in malfeasance would have dealt with what is coming out, especially with an election coming up. The ANC or any other party at the helm for that matter would be woefully unprepared to handle such a fallout from the infrastructure and competence requirements of leading and processing evidence.
The evidence compels us to withdraw the benefit of the doubt and argue that this is a feature of knowing self-preservation through concealment.
While the country is abuzz with preparations and politicians canvassing votes, the structure of the Big Debate discussions provides a real moment of reflection and is very sobering.
Former President Thabo Mbeki has weighed in his support for the ANC and this time around has done so emphasising the necessity for revealing the truth to the nation as the only path through which our tired minds and moment of despair can face the future with courage.
Mbeki can say so with not only the power of conviction, but with confidence in deep-rooted evidence, because he led the Cabinet and the directors-general to engage in scenario planning that stretched into the future when he was in power.
Such became the practice until the June 2008 Cabinet lekgotla before he was ousted.
Mbeki painted four scenarios: Sgud s Nice, Shosholoza, Dudisanang and Skedonk. His focus was more on the Shosholoza scenario - taking into account the menacing dangers that could catapult South Africa into Skedonk.
What is fascinating, but very profound about the scenarios, was that they were so detailed that each had its drivers, attendant challenges, path dependency, timing and its finite end state description.
Once the infamous Polokwane emerged, the scenarios discussed included Muvhango. This was a variant that defined the outcome of Mangaung wherein the heroes of Polokwane would be villains. It did not end there.
The projected health of the ANC towards Nasrec, where it would be directionless, factionalised and beyond recognition, became more pronounced.
The end game was that in 2019 the ANC would have to go to the public to truthfully apologise and hope to be given a chance to redeem itself. This can happen only if it is truthful about its malfeasance.
Given this burden of foresight and leadership, Mbeki is correct in reflecting on the questions he asked in his address in Polokwane: “How will we honour those who paid the ultimate price for our freedom during the era of centenary celebrations; what divides us; and you?”
The die was cast and Polokwane occurred, setting a path-dependent outcome of Skedonk, which South Africa is deep in with its eyes open 25 years post-apartheid.
It is against this background that any member with a chequered record aspiring for leadership cannot contribute to or constitute a redeemed ANC. The polls suggest that the ANC will win the elections.
But the reality now points out that any unredeemed party winning an election will unleash a Gwara Gwara scenario - a floundering false dawn which is a third degree Skedonk.
The unease in the Big Debate is about this unpalatable likelihood. It is a likelihood that will eventuate should we not heed Mbeki’s emphatic call recently.
Remember, former president Kgalema Motlanthe also warned about the self-destructive nature of the ANC’s immune system that will terminally defend the indefensible.
Dr Pali Lehohla is the former Statistician-General of South Africa and former head of Statistics South Africa - www.pie.org.za and tweeter @PaliLehohla