It's not all talk: Debating society forges new areas of outreach

12 May 2003

Talk, talk: The UCT Debating Union has a valuable outreach programme in the townships where a love of verbal sparring has taken root, seen in the high participation rates. Photographed here were (from left, back) Brad Shuttleworth, Kate Orkin, Ryan Macwilliam, Dave Simonsz, Sithembile Mbete, Jared Licina, Nick Friedman, Rhonwyn Cornell, Theo Mokgatle and Rob Garlick. (From left, front) Ndanga Kamau and Caryn Collins. (University and schools debating is overseen by the SANDC and the National Debating Board, respectively.)

If you thought the UCT Debating Union was all talk, think again. This thriving group of 160 or so students has taken their oratory skills into fourteen schools in local disadvantaged communities, giving a platform to pockets of the youth community who previously had little opportunity to discuss or debate current issues; war, politics, social and moral issues as well as HIV/AIDS.

The UCT Debating Union, one of the University's legion of sports and social clubs, is producing sterling results, unleashing the talents of some ardent debaters in the townships, all under the banner of the Township Debating League. Many of these pupils have taken to the proverbial soapbox with a passion as they explore current affairs and matters of national and international relevance.

Schools currently involved are Sinethemba (Philippi), Vuyiseka and Phakama (Delft), Zisukhanyo and Sophumelela (Samora Machel), Fezeka, ID Mhkize, Gugulethu Comprehensive and Sithembele Matiso (Guguletu), Oscar Mpetha and Dr NR Mandela (Nyanga), and Spine Road and Ledeger High (Mitchells Plain). "Many more schools wish to be involved and even within our current group of institutions the participation rates are well beyond anything seen at previously advantaged schools," said the Union's Brad Shuttleworth.

Outreach is one of the Union's key thrusts and workshops are run in the townships each week, with a tournament held at the end of each term. "We're getting some amazing results," Union sub-committee member Clint Tessendorf affirmed. "There is an unheard voice out there and in many instances these repressed views are strong and profound. With debating, we give them a neutral ground to discuss and argue a host of topical issues." Every Monday night adjudicators from UCT can be seen in action at schools from Bellville to Muizenburg.

The pupils also benefit from the vibrant cultural exchange where barriers of gender and race are transcended. Tessendorf sees their work as a building block in the vital nation building enterprise. "The ability to analyse information rapidly, critically and impartially is crucial in today's society and central to debating training," Shuttleworth added. "Debaters are taught to listen and evaluate the thoughts and opinions of others and are constantly exposed to a plethora of perspectives and cultures. In a period of history where an understanding of diversity, both socially and ideologically, is sought after, it is a skill and background that is highly valued."

Currently there are two levels of debating competitions, one for advantaged schools and another for disadvantaged schools. But, as Tessendorf reports, "There is very little between the two finals and the gap is rapidly decreasing."

In addition, the Union helps run the Rotary Club of South Africa's Schools Debating Tournament, held once a week. This produces an "amazing array" of debaters from a wide variety of schools, who gather at a host school to strut their verbal stuff. UCT also has members on the Schools Debating Task Team, the body that formulates and implements schools debating policy.

More recently the Union became involved in the LoveLife Games programme, an annual six-month festival to promote self esteem and healthy lifestyles among the youth. The games include pursuits as diverse as rugby and cheerleading, and in 2001 included the "new sport"; debating. Miliswa Mnyande (17) is a pupil at Guguletu's Fezeka Secondary School, one of the schools involved in the programme. In April she was selected for the South African Development Team, which will be attending the IDEA Debate Forum in Slovenia in July.

The UCT Debating Union is also engaged in a wider fundraising drive to ensure promising young debaters make it to local invitational tournaments as well as national and international meetings. (Interestingly, the top individual speaker of every South African National Schools Debating Championships to date has gone on to represent the UCT team.)

Back at university level, the UCT Debating Union underpins one of the country's top four university debating teams, alongside Wits, Rhodes and Stellenbosch. Debating, Tessendorf believes, is good for the general intellectual enterprise and adds to a student's arsenal of critical thinking tools. "At university level you work with abstract ideas. Debating gives you the freedom to stand up and throw ideas about. It also teaches you to argue a case both ways and gets you thinking objectively, beyond your personal views."

The Union will be taking a delegation of 30 people to the South African National University Championships, which are being co-hosted by Wits and RAU this year.

The Union meets every Thursday at 19h30 in the Leslie Social Science Building foyer. Staff are welcome to join. Debates take place on Campus as well as at the various eateries and watering holes in the surrounding suburbs. For more information about the Township League, please email For information about debating in general, please email

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