A delegation of students from the University of Cape Town (UCT) recently participated in the South African National Model United Nations (UN) conference in Pretoria.
The United Nations simulation, which ran from 10 to 13 July, was hosted by the Department of International Relations and Cooperation (DIRCO), in order to promote diplomacy and knowledge of international affairs among young people in South Africa.
Of the eight UCT delegates, competing against approximately 70 other participants, five received awards based on their performance during the simulation.
Among South African universities, there are three main players in the Model UN sphere: the UCT chapter of the United Nations Association of South Africa (UNASA), the chapter from the University of Pretoria, and the chapter from Nelson Mandela University (NMU).
Reon van der Merwe, who is completing a postgraduate degree in development studies, is chapter chairperson for UNASA at UCT.
“NMU usually cleans up in terms of awards,” he said. “They have a very strong team because they have a lot of funding from their university.
“At UCT, we entered the Model UN space very recently. For example, in 2016 we attended a conference and we received two awards: best delegation and best speaker. This year, even though NMU won best delegation, we won five awards. So our participation increased and our performance increased.”
For the past two years, award-winning participants at the UN conference have been invited back to DIRCO for a diplomatic training workshop series, where they meet with diplomats to learn about the diplomatic career path and issues surrounding international relations.
Van der Merwe explained the principles behind a Model UN: “Essentially, it is a simulation of the United Nations, where you simulate the various committees and then debate specific relevant issues that the actual UN is dealing with now.
“The crux of it is that you get a country and you have to understand the country’s foreign policy and advocate effectively for what they would advocate for. So it’s educational in that regard, but it also really helps you to develop skills around diplomacy and negotiation.”
“The crux of it is that you get a country and you have to understand the country’s foreign policy and advocate effectively for what they would advocate for.”
Postgraduate law student Savannah Cozzi, a sub-committee member in the outreach branch of UNASA at UCT, said, “You make an opening speech and you say your stance on the issue. Then comes a more informal process where you get to the meaty part of the issue. Then you debate.
“At the end of the day, you put forward a resolution, and you’re trying to get as many countries as possible to sign onto it.”
“The whole point of the conference is consensus,” added Van der Merwe. “At the UN you get all of these countries in one room that have completely opposing views, but they have to agree on global issues. So it really helps you to understand the world.”
This year’s national Model UN conference took place at DIRCO headquarters.
“What that adds to the whole Model UN effect is that you actually get to engage with real diplomats and people who work there,” he said.
At home and abroad
Besides taking part in local and national conferences, the UCT UNASA chapter also sends delegates to international conferences.
“Last year and the year before we went to New York for the WFUNA [World Federation of United Nations Associations] Model UN,” said Van der Merwe.
“It was such a good experience for the 10 delegates that went, because they got to go to the UN headquarters itself, and it was a higher level of Model UN.”
He outlined the benefits of attending a Model UN conference: “On an individual basis, the exposure you get and what you learn is invaluable. The problem in South Africa is that we don’t really have what you could call a ‘Model UN culture’.
“In European countries and America, this kind of thing is standard practice – they do it in school and universities – but in South Africa it’s relatively new. I think the push for a Model UN culture in South Africa, having it as an extracurricular but educational activity, must come from the universities.”
“The push for a Model UN culture in South Africa, having it as an extracurricular but educational activity, must come from the universities.”
The UCT chapter also does charitable work.
Cozzi said, “The outreach branch looks at UN Sustainable Development Goals and we see what sort of projects we can create in terms of [achieving] those goals.
“Model UN gives you the opportunity to step out of your comfort zone and practise public speaking. I think it’s so important because you need to be able to speak publicly, in the workplace or wherever you are,” she said.
“It’s also about people skills. You have to be charismatic. As much as it is a lot of work, it’s really fun.”
The UCT UNASA chapter will be hosting a regional Model UN conference on 25–26 August 2018.
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