Mbeki’s 1994 TV debate nightmare

by The Editor

SERIES: In this edition of From the Archives: As the Republican Party process to determine a presidential candidate plays itself out in America, with a seemingly endless stream of televised debates, it is worth asking why we don’t enjoy a similar culture of public debate in South Africa. Why did Jacob Zuma and Helen Zille not debate each other on live television in the run-up to the 2009 election? The answer to that question is a complex one, and a lot, I suspect, to do with Zuma himself. But the ANC more generally has never really advocated for this kind of thing, certainly Mbeki fought it tooth and nail – and he was no Jacob Zuma. Why? One reason is the ANC’s obvious attitude to debate but, with regards to Mbeki, the answer might be a little more personal. Here follows a retrospective on the first and only time democratic South Africa presidential candidates debated on live TV – in the run-up to the 1994 election.

Mbeki’s 1994 TV debate nightmare

By: Gareth van Onselen

23 January 2007


South African politics suffers tremendously from the lack of meaningful political debate. In large part the problem is the ANC’s attitude towards the idea. It revels in creating the perception it is interested in the contestation of ideas – it is even willing to grant small concessions here and there to help engender the pretence it is open to conceding something here and there – but, on those fundamental issue at hand, you can be sure its view is set in revolutionary concrete.

In the run-up to the 2004 national election, DA leader Tony Leon challenged President Mbeki to a televised debate. He refused and the ANC responded by saying that he was “too busy” to debate. He had also refused to debate anyone in the 1999 election.

The suggestion has been made that the SABC should take the lead. But this seems like nothing more than wishful thinking. Apart from the fact that the SABC takes its lead from the ANC and not the other way around – as the recent blacklisting saga illustrated – even if the SABC did initiate a series of interviews or debates it would, no doubt be declined.

Things weren’t always like this though, Nelson Mandela debated FW de Klerk ahead of the 1994 elections – although that can largely be attributed to President Mandela’s personal commitment to democracy, the ANC didn’t like the idea at all. More interestingly though, events surrounding that particular debate holds a possible explanation for why Thabo Mbeki has refused to debate anyone ever since.

The 1994 debate

On 21 December 1993 President FW de Klerk held a press conference in which he challenged ANC President Nelson Mandela to a pre-election debate on television and radio.

“I have no restrictions about the debate,” De Klerk said, “it should be open, free ranging, free and fair. If he accepts we will negotiate a date as well as the framework and rules of the debate.”

The next day, the ANC slammed the idea, calling it “empty and bankrupt”.

“The ANC is not opposed to debates among leaders of parties contesting the elections but… media events of the type De Klerk seems to be so desperate for will be the cherry on top of a serious (election) campaign, not the starting point,” the ANC said.

But it didn’t dismiss the idea out of hand.

The person in charge of De Klerk’s campaign at the time was none other than Marthinus van Schalkwyk, who used the ANC’s hesitancy to ratchet up the pressure: “The fact that the ANC is backing away from the invitation means it wants to deprive its voters of the their right to weigh the options between the two leaders and their policies,” he said in a statement..

It worked, and just before he read out the ANC’s annual January 8th statement, Mandela accepted the challenge.

In a subsequent editorial, the Cape Argus praised the idea: “While the number of debates in South Africa and their format have yet to be decided, the agreement in principle to hold such exchanges should greatly enhance the democratic process in the country’s first non-racial ballot and should afford millions of voters a first-hand opportunity to judge the strengths and weaknesses of political leaders”.

The date of the debate was set for 14 April 1994 and, in the run up, both De Klerk and Mandela upped the ante – setting the scene for what the media was framing as a big showdown between South Africa’s two political heavyweights – “The Great Debate”.

“One of us will come out bruised and it will not be me,” said Mandela.

ANC spokesperson Ronnie Mamoepa said the debate “epitomised the climax of this whole campaign in which people will have to make a choice between oppression and despair and democracy and a better life”.

The Sunday Times reported that Mandela was taking the debate “very seriously”, leaving “nothing to chance”. It reported that Mandela spent an entire day with the ANC National Executive Committee being briefed on issues and deciding which ones to project.

Van Schalkwyk was more blasé, “He’s really a natural. Of course, we will prepare him, but because he’s a natural, we won’t over prepare him”.

During a series of meetings, over two weeks, the two parties finalised the details of the debate. Agenda’s presenter Freek Robinson would act as moderator and a panel of four journalists – the SABC’s Lester Venter and Tim Modise as well as Ferial Hafajee and the BBC’s John Simpson – would sit on a panel, from which they would pose key policy questions. The debate would last 72 minutes and take place before an audience of 60 people – 25 from each party and 10 from the SABC.

The show would be broadcast on TV1 and CCV, as well as on CNN to a worldwide audience of millions, between 8.35 and 9.45 pm South African time.

Each question would take six minutes – two minutes for each candidate to answer, then one minute of rebuttal per man.

The NP’s original suggestion that there be three debates was opposed by the ANC, according to the Sunday Times, because the ANC “did not want to risk denting Mr Mandela’s public image in a series of bruising encounters”.

It was decided that the two leaders would sit for the duration of the debate, a concession on the NP’s behalf – they had wanted them both to stand.

Even the toss of the coin, to decide who spoke first, was the source of much contention. It was decided that it would be tossed up by a third party and broadcast live on TV. De Klerk won.

The big night arrived and, despite all the hype, the actual event was, by all accounts, a let down – certainly too close to call. Although everyone seemed to agree it had done wonders for reconciliation.

What the press had to say

The Daily News said the debate “did not live up to its billing as a grudge match,” but did send out, “the most positive message imaginable”.

Wyndhan Hartley, writing for the Natal Witness, said, “South Africa emerged the winner”. Anthony Johnson, from the Cape Times, described the debate as, “the political slugfest of the election campaign”.

The Cape Argus wrote that “the debate itself was a near-run affair and it would be difficult to say who won,” although it thought it was reconciliation and hope which emerged as the “ultimate victors”.

The Citizen also seemed largely unmoved by the actual content of the debate and more by the fact that it took place all: “Expert opinion suggests that there were not many who were swayed by the answers to vote one way or another… but given there will be a Government of National Unity, it was absolutely essential the two should show that despite their sometimes acrimonious differences and a great deal of mudslinging by their parties in the election, they hope to achieve reconciliation and unity when they serve together in the next government”.

According to the NP, the electorate was less undecided. According to a poll commissioned by the party 139 out of 313 people interviewed (45%) believed Mr De Klerk won the debate, 79 (25%) that Mr Mandela had won and 90 (30%) that it was a tie.

(A racial breakdown of the respondents interviewed is not available)

Why Mbeki won’t debate

So what does this all have to do with Thabo Mbeki and his deep dislike of public debate?

Well, as mentioned above, the NP had originally proposed three debates but the ANC had opposed this. Although it was decided that De Klerk and Mandela would have just one debate, it was agreed that the two parties would have two, and as a precursor to the De Klerk/Mandela debate, ANC Chairman Thabo Mbeki would debate Foreign Affairs Minister Pik Botha live on television.

That hour long debate took place on 28 March 1994, also on the SABC TV show Agenda and was co-chaired by Freek Robinson and Lester Venter.

It was, in effect, an experiment for the main event. And it was an experiment which went horribly wrong.

The 300-strong studio audience wasn’t screened. They cheered and shouted slogans throughout the debate.

“Viva Pik! Viva Pik!” shouted some of the spectators.

But while the atmosphere resembled something of a circus, the biggest problem was Botha himself. His performance was viciously criticised in the papers the next day.

“Time after time he ignored the thrust of questions put to him,” the Argus wrote, “it was like listening to vintage Pik in full cry…”

A calm, collected Mbeki was simply shouted down and relentlessly attacked.

The Daily News described the event as follows:

“While Mr Mbeki had taken part in last night’s event to calmly, thoughtfully debate the issues, Mr Botha, a seasoned electioneer of many campaigns, had joined combat to promote the National Party and denigrate the ANC”.

(Ironically, Mr Botha is now a loyal, disciplined ANC member.)

The Cape Times said viewers could be forgiven for thinking they had tuned into “a telly games show”.

And Botha didn’t stick to attacking Mbeki either. At one point, in full bully-mode, and when refused a minute by Lester Venter to respond to an issue Botha exclaimed, “You see what has become of the SABC!” A revealing quote if ever there was one.

Putting the final touches on a debate which verged on farce, Botha told viewers, “To National Party supporters I say drive safely. To those who are not – who am I to tell you how to drive?”

A Markinor poll, commissioned by the NP, found that out of the 200 people sampled (164 white and 32 black, coloureds and Indians) 32% of whites and 21% of ‘blacks’ (presumably the three other race groups together) thought Botha was ‘Outstanding’. 4% of whites and 21% of blacks thought Mbeki was ‘Outstanding’.

31% of whites and 31% of ‘blacks’ though Botha was very good, compared to 16% and 12% respectively for Mbeki.


The poll probably can’t be taken seriously, for a number different reasons – neither can the De Klerk/Mandela poll for that matter – but what is for sure is that Mbeki was clearly embarrassed – outperformed by bluster and rhetoric and left looking like an also-ran.

No doubt the idea that he would simply serve as guinea pig for the main event also served to irk the ANC Chairman.

It is disingenuous to attribute Mbeki’s disdain for the public debate to this one particular incident, but it quite clearly wasn’t a good experience for the future ANC President.

One thing is for sure: outside of Parliament, Mbeki has never entered into another public debate since.

And South Africa is probably the poorer for it. Public debate and opposing views are the life blood of any democracy.

That the President is unwilling to engage anyone on a public platform, only serves to undermine public debate and voter’s ability to make informed choices.

This is an edited and abbreviated version of a 2007 article.

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