Twenty Years Ago Today: The Presidential Debate

FW-de-Klerk-and-Nelson-Ma-001Twenty years ago today, two political titans clashed live on television. In the grand tradition of pre-election debates across the world, the two main candidates for the role of President of South Africa traded verbal blows and challenged each other's policies, all so that voters could get a sense of what these two people were offering the nation should they take charge of the country. Except that everyone already knew who was going to win. The next president would be Nelson Mandela. His rival, F.W. de Klerk, stood absolutely no chance. It was widely presumed that he would be offered a senior position in a coalition government following the election. So why even bother with the debate?

Because this was going to be a free and fair election, and having a debate is one of those things commonly done in a free and fair election. The fact that the outcome was already known was simply a function of just how popular Mandela was at that moment, now that the whole population was going to get a chance to vote. Mandela and de Klerk weren't really rivals; they'd been partners ever since Mandela walked free in 1990, working together to build the post-apartheid South Africa. It didn't make for the most enthralling of debates, although it swiftly became clearly that de Klerk had the greater skill, which he'd presumably honed during the 27 years that Mandela had been locked in a prison cell. It's doubtful that anyone changed their mind as a result of the debate - but the simple fact that it was happening was an achievement in and of itself.

However, there was still one major problem, which you could spot from the list of parties that ran up the screen at the end. The list was meant to include every single group participating in the elections, but one was missing: the Inkatha Freedom Party, which was still clashing violently with the ANC and refusing to take part in the elections. One of Mandela and de Klerk's more interesting clashes during the debate came as a result of this, as Mandela reminded his rival that Inkatha's fighters had been trained and funded by the police in order to create divisions within the black population of South Africa.

Despite everything, the story of the first free elections in South Africa were not over yet; with Inkatha still refusing to take part, there was still a chance that it could all go horribly wrong.

Here's a video of the debate if you'd like to watch.