President Jacob Zuma and DA leader Helen Zille File picture: Sizwe Ndingane

Helen Zille clearly wanted to belittle and humiliate the president when she challenged him to a debate, says Andrew Donaldson.

South African politics, it has been said, is a different kettle of fish altogether, and so the recidivism and savagery that has risen to such prominence in recent weeks should come as no surprise to the seasoned observer.

Dirty tricks and aggravated deceit are par for the course when our representatives hit the campaign trail and it seems only fitting that there should be gunfire from their henchmen and bodyguards when members of the ruling party attempt to convince the electorate that they have their best interests at heart.

But even the hardened regulars at the Mahogany Ridge have been stunned into disbelief at the level of grubbiness to which a callous and cynical Helen Zille has now sunk in her latest bid to win support.

In an open letter to President Jacob Zuma, the DA leader has cruelly challenged him to a televised debate on the state of the economy – particularly jobs.

“Today,” she wrote, “there are 1.4 million more South Africans unemployed than the day you became president. This means, Mr President, that more than one out of every three South Africans is unemployed. These facts stand in stark contrast to the statements you have made on your administration’s record of job creation and economic management. I believe very firmly that we should have an opportunity to openly debate these issues together, and to answer questions from the public directly.”

Televised political debates between presidential candidates are, of course, an American innovation. The first took place on September 26, 1960, between Richard Nixon and John F Kennedy. The encounter – the first of four – boosted support for Kennedy.

In the 50 years that followed, these spectacles became extraordinarily stage-managed and very often it would be candidates’ gestures or mannerisms – how relaxed they looked on camera, how they smiled, whether or not they sweated like a pig – that would inevitably prove decisive rather than anything that was said or argued.

Because they’re so showbizzy, it was only a matter of time – five decades or so – before African countries decided to have live “debates” of their own. As Zille pointed out in her letter, Ghana, Sierra Leone and Kenya all broadcast such things in 2012. The Kenyan event was particularly well-received, apparently, with coverage on 42 local radio and TV stations, as well as YouTube.

Even Malawi – where the roads are nowhere near fit enough for e-tolls – is getting in on the act and will be airing three national televised debates between presidential candidates this year.

“A televised debate would strengthen our democracy and public discourse,” Zille said. “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.”

The ruling party, not unexpectedly, has dismissed Zille’s call for a live debate with the chief. Obviously they regard our democracy as plenty strong enough, thank you very much – what with high-ranking members of both the ANC and the DA being chased out of townships with rocks and other missiles by angry residents.

They also clearly believe that Zille, despite being a presidential candidate, was somehow reaching above her station in wanting a debate with Zuma. As a premier, she should only debate other premiers. Or the Western Cape ANC leader, Marius Fransman, which was Police Minister Nathi Mthethwa’s not very helpful suggestion.

What’s more absurd here, though, is that everyone knows the real reason why there won’t be any such debate, and that is because Jacob Zuma is just rubbish at it. He is not only hard of debating, if I may put it that way, he is completely lacking in all manner of it whatsoever.

Let’s be blunt. There are issues of first languages, and even if the president spoke through an interpreter, he’s not going to expose himself to a situation where a clever woman climbs all over his shabbiness with her European devilry and asks him questions when she already knows the answers. The whole thing seems too much like being in the High Court again.

For her part, I’m sure Zille was all too aware of her considerable advantages when she issued her challenge. Shame on her, but she clearly wanted to belittle and humiliate the president. Had she any balls she would have stripped down to her undergarments, smeared herself with ochre and challenged the president to an old-fashioned Zulu stick fight.

That, you must agree, has all the makings of an excellent TV debate.

* Andrew Donaldson’s A Famous Grouse column appears in the Weekend Argus every Saturday.

** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Newspapers.

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