ANC rejects Leon’s call for debate

17th February 2004

The African National Congress (ANC) rejected yesterday an attempt by the Democratic Alliance to have its leader Tony Leon debate with President Thabo Mbeki on national television.

ANC spokesperson Smuts Ngonyama said Mbeki was too busy to engage with Leon, and further accused the DA of wanting to public debate to improve its profile.

"The DA's challenge to President Thabo Mbeki to engage in a televised debate with Tony Leon is nothing more than a transparent attempt by the DA to elevate the profile and stature of its leader.

"If the leader of the DA wants to improve his image and profile among South Africans, he should do so on his own account and not hang onto the coattails of President Mbeki," Ngonyama said in a statement.

Ngonyama said: "If the DA believes that the president's comments about their policies are incorrect, then they should convince the people of South Africa to the contrary.

"When the ANC wants to communicate with the people of South Africa it does so directly with the people," he said.

The ANC's election campaign was about speaking to the people about the issues that concern them and the programmes that we would be carried out to meet their needs.

"The ANC is not going to waste its time in meaningless dialogue with an opposition party that can't be bothered to speak to South Africans directly, that isn't prepared to engage honestly with people's concerns, and which still has not forwarded any policy positions which seriously speak to the challenges facing this country," Ngonyama said.

Earlier yesterday DA chief whip Douglas Gibson said he was disappointed that the ANC has refused to publicly engage Leon in a debate.

He said the refusal was a sign of growing presidential arrogance, disregard for the democratic process, and disrespect for the people.

Gibson said Mbeki was also taking advantage of the calendar to elude tough questions.

The current parliamentary session would end on February 27 and Mbeki would not be attending Parliament for the purpose of presidential question time, and would not be available to answer questions or for debate before the election.

"In a modern democracy this is an unacceptably long period," Gibson said in a statement, dismissing Ngonyama's assertion that Mbeki was "too busy" to debate with Leon and had "better things to do" as nonsensical.

Before the 1994 election former president Nelson Mandela found the time to debate with then president FW de Klerk on television.

During the 1996 election in the US President Bill Clinton debated with his Republican rival, Bob Dole, he said.

Last year Nigerian President Olusegun Abasanjo was prepared to debate with his main challenger in the Nigerian presidential elections.

All these leaders were able to find the time to debate their rivals because they recognised the centrality of such a contest to the electoral process.

"It is only Thabo Mbeki who does not have the time, or the courage, to engage in public debate.

"By running away from a debate with Tony Leon, Mbeki is running away from the voters of South Africa.

"It is time he stopped, stood his ground, and defended his record as president and the policies his government has implemented," Gibson said. – Sapa.