Zuma-Zille debate

2008-06-28 00:00

Having earlier expressed readiness to engage in debate with any person at any time, ANC leader Jacob Zuma has now rejected a challenge from Helen Zille. The idea of a public debate as part of the democratic process has appeal. It is illuminating to hear leading politicians respond directly and concisely to specific challenges on contentious issues, and with Zuma particularly, many people would welcome clarification of his often obscure and seemingly contradictory views.

Both procedurally and politically, however, Zuma may have grounds to resist the invitation. Public debates of this kind are usually held after an election has been called, which is not the situation here. If he believes that Zille is really just seeking to score points in a political game, he may also have a case. The ruling party can be much more vulnerable to criticism than an opposition whose policies do not impact directly on people's lives. But the primary reason he has given — that Zille is merely trying to “elevate” herself — is itself questionable. As leader of the DA, Zille is Zuma’s exact counterpart. She is, moreover, leader of the Opposition, an officially recognised position that has legitimate and significant status. The implication that it is beneath Zuma’s dignity to engage with her suggests an inappropriately arrogant misunderstanding of democratic principles and structures.

Furthermore, this reversal of his earlier offer echoes his delaying tactics with the corruption trial after first demanding his day in court. The public is again left with the perception that Zuma has little coherent to offer and a good deal to hide.

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