There was the historical dimension: Nelson Mandela, who was kept in jail for 27 years by successive National Party governments, holding a civilised debate before the eyes of South Africa with a National Party president whose job he will soon usurp.
But more remarkable were the politics of the drama. Assuming, as F W de Klerk effectively did in the debate, that Mr Mandela will win the election, Mr de Klerk will not be condemned to opposition. He will be part of Mr Mandela's coalition government. He will probably be, as he acknowledged, South Africa's first executive deputy president and, what is more, the first white man to serve in such a capacity under the first black president.
What made the event unique was the tension between their need to confront each other as rival candidates for the same job and their recognition that they have been and will remain, for at least the next five years, partners in a hugely ambitious national project: to heal the wounds of a society torn apart by skin colour.
The first question, from a panel of four journalists, concerned political violence. Mr de Klerk compared his party's good record to that of the African National Congress (ANC) and Inkatha. Mr Mandela, who was more abrupt and confrontational, accused Mr de Klerk of covering up police involvement. 'But can the African National Congress say it has acted against its own people?' asked Mr de Klerk. 'I have.'
'He has much to explain,' retorted Mr Mandela. 'He is less than candid in putting the facts before the public.'
Was Mr de Klerk happy at the way things had panned out in the last four years of negotiations? 'The National Party has become the most representative non-racial party in South Africa . . . I am happy because there was no other alternative.' Mr Mandela was not happy with this reply. 'No organisation in this world,' he said, 'is as divisive as the so- called 'new National Party'.'
Mr Mandela said he would cut his presidential salary when he came to power, to which Mr de Klerk replied that Mr Mandela was nave if he thought this gesture would solve the country's economic problems. 'Obviously Mr de Klerk was not listening,' Mr Mandela said. 'The days of the gravy trains are gone.'
The body language of both men was a study in spontaneity and trained calculation. Mr Mandela, who when listening often looks as if he has turned to stone, was more animated. He used his hands, he grimaced, he laughed. Most of the time, he would look his questioner in the eye while Mr de Klerk, the professional politician, more conscious of the real audience, stared straight at the camera, moved his hands and face sparingly. Asked about the thorny Inkatha question, Mr de Klerk strove to reach out to Mr Mandela, commending the ANC for its efforts to lure Chief Mangosuthu Buthelezi into the new democratic fold. Mr Mandela was not having any of it. Not yet. He rounded on Mr de Klerk for having used 'state funds to finance the murderous activities of Inkatha'. Mr de Klerk was taken aback: 'I find the sudden aggression of Mr Mandela on this strange.'
Just as suddenly, Mr Mandela melted. 'I think we are a shining example to the whole world of people drawn from different racial groups who have a common loyalty to their country. In spite of my criticism of Mr de Klerk, sir,' he said, turning to his rival, 'you are one of those I rely upon to face these problems together.'
'Thank you for those kind words, Mr Mandela . . . we are working together for national reconciliation.'
Mr Mandela, who had the last word, did what was expected of him and called on the electorate to vote for the ANC and 'the beginning of a new era of hope'. But he also said: 'Let us work together. I am proud to hold your hand for us to go forward together.' And then Mr Mandela reached out his black left hand across to Mr de Klerk who, with a coy smile, reached out his white right hand and, for a happy instant, they held the touch.Reuse content