The debate that was...

Interviewers Donald Seberane, Omphile Sehurutshe, Spencer Mogapi and Thebeyame Ramoroka. PIC THALEFANG CHARLES
Interviewers Donald Seberane, Omphile Sehurutshe, Spencer Mogapi and Thebeyame Ramoroka. PIC THALEFANG CHARLES

As elections draw closer, the nation has been gripped, week after week, by electoral constituency debates that revealed a very funny, entertaining yet sad state of affairs.

Candidates vying for political office struggle to express themselves and their electoral agendas in a coherent and convincing manner.

The bar has been set by past administrations that have been ridden with members that fail to represent their ideas and answer the difficult questions.

Fortunately, the Presidential debate made it all seem much better, giving us a peak of democracy and open, competitive contestation of ideas at play.

But does it matter whether a candidate can transition from ‘rally mode’ and manoeuvre the clean yet brutal sphere of debate? If a candidate can command a debate stage, will he or she get more votes than a fumbling opponent?

But should contenders for political office be mavericks at debate in the first place?

The precedent says otherwise. In almost, if not all Parliamentary sessions for the past 53 years, we have passed judgement and scrutiny on who performed better, who contributed to Parliamentary debates and brought any meaningful nuance to conversations on development budgets, bills and policy issues.

To the surprise or a lack thereof of many, some members of Parliament have gone through entire sessions committed not to their oath of office, but to an oath of silence.

As the country spends the last remaining days contemplating who to vote for, these debates have been ideally used to gauge who deserves a vote and who does not. Voters expect parliamentary candidates to be able to stand tall and articulate what they are bringing to the table.

In the same breath, contenders terrible at debate have gone through with flying colours, and alas, political debates have instead been a source of entertainment and comedy, reflecting similarity to political rallies as opposed to interrogation of meaningful, constructive engagement of ideas, policies and manifestos.

Herein lies several paradoxes in Botswana’s politics: voters admire and are impressed with politicians who have calm, fearless self-confidence. They respect those who express reasonable self-doubt but dislike arrogance.

The nation’s reaction to Boko’s ‘arrogant demeanour’ and unapologetic bluntness versus Ndaba’s soft-spoken but punchy delivery is a case in point.

Secondly, voters yearn for a democratic ‘common’ person but simultaneously one who has uncommon genius, charisma, and star quality.

This brings up a brilliant and interesting debate on whether given the state the country is in, respectability politics and walking around nicely around political opponents still has a place. Boko’s bluntness and radical demeanour in delivering the truth must be applauded in earnest.

Political party campaigns, while interesting in and of themselves, are designed to determine those who are ready to govern. Getting elected requires a certain set of skills.

The ability to hold a clean debate seems to rank lower than which party one comes from, which family name one carries, how one dresses or speaks, what car they drive, which neighbourhood they live in and whether they can buy your family grocery for that month, or your uncle and his boys a few pints of beer. That is and has been the bar!

In another instance, western presidential debates have been the most well-known forms of political debates. They have also been the most followed, viewed, controlled, and the most researched political television programmes.

During the American or the British electoral cycles, many people have been fascinated by debates from the Nixon, Reagan, Bush, Clinton, Bush jnr and Obama presidencies, right on down to the days of Churchill, Blair and Cameron.

These have been the standards and points of reference for which we have observed political competition and communication. And while it has been intriguing to watch, the truth is these have not and perhaps cannot and should not be replicated into our own politics.

Applying standards developed in the American political communication culture to the Botswana or African political communication cultures may prove to be an unfit approach as these are different political cultures and media systems.

However, comparisons of this kind are needed if we wish to develop an effective instrument of our own or to see what challenges the system may confront in different cultures.

Because the system has worked well in western political culture, it is reasonable to investigate whether it could also offer a tool for analyses and application in other different cultures.

But there’s only a certain extent to which an application can be made, lest we seem to over-idolise the Western way of doing things.

Can political debates be adapted to fit a specific cultural context? Wednesday’s Presidential debate answered in the affirmative. The debate conducted in Setswana allowed candidates to swiftly express themselves in the way they saw fit.

The final question, which we must all confront is: are debates effective tools to garner endorsement for political office and is the ability to debate in Parliament? The answer is, “No!” We have seen countless times how well-meaning, talented debaters and orators have been defeated by caucus culture within the Botswana Parliament.

No matter how well-articulated and well-learned one Honourable Member may be, if they do not have the numbers, their bill will simply not see the light of day.

As for whether Batswana use the ability to debate as a metric for voting that may well be the case for educated, urban-dwelling, millennial, liberal voters. But maybe for the other tons of voters spread across the country, it does not matter at all. 

This is not to dismiss debate and its importance. Debates can be tremendously informative, can reveal glimpses of candidates’ foundational character traits and temperament.

The Presidential debate was a unique experience offering perfect glimpses of foreign policy, governance, social issues, corruption, economic and trade policy stances.

President Masisi exercised a lot of restraint, was careful not to build too many dreamy narratives and could manoeuvre issues with specialised knowledge of governance, government spending and budgeting.

His party’s legacy in governance was not so helpful unfortunately. UDC’s Duma Boko added a much-needed radical, shape-shifting touch to policy issues, had a quick grasp of economic and foreign policy rationale but was wishy-washy on China, patronage politics etc.

Ndaba is clearly the creative genius economic and financial policy architect who we all agree would be the logical successor to Kenneth Matambo.

Butale on the other hand was the fourth wheel who showed up to get the vehicle moving. Although he does have a reasonable grasp of governance, his Presidential appeal is insignificant.

Despite the funny word plays and Ratsie Sethako references, the country is better off after the debate.   

*Bakang Ntshingane is a graduate student at Chonbuk National University’s Department of International Trade in South Korea.

Editor's Comment
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