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A Reflection on the End of a Debating Career

Rebecca Mqamelo debating
ARGO International Debate Tournament (Romania, 2016)

This piece has been a long time coming. I write this in the hope that it will become more than just a venting exercise which has become so customary of ex-South African school debaters, but something all debaters within the system will carefully consider.  I write this because it is a message that the South African debating community needs to hear.

I grew up under this system. From my first Nationals tournament in Grade 9, I came to understand that there are certain procedures followed, assumptions accepted and gripes tolerated which make this the unique, intimidating and formative institution that it is.

I admired this space where one was encouraged – challenged – to step outside of one’s comfort zone (fifteen-hour bus rides and evenings spent researching the effect of patents on technological start ups are not your average teenager’s idea of a holiday well spent) and stretch one’s mind far beyond the mundane, limiting boundaries set by the traditional school system. It was a revelation! I was awed by all the information out there waiting to be known; all the interesting people to meet, and all the debates to win, lose and simply experience, so that they could mold me into a versatile, independent and nuanced thinker (funny how we have all come to treat that word as a special pet, isn’t it?)

The South African debating community does not receive anything close to the recognition it deserves for nurturing our best young minds and future leaders. On behalf of every person who has ever benefited in any way from this system, no matter how small, I would like to extend my overwhelming gratitude. Debating has made me who I am today.

But I also quickly learned that this was simultaneously a space that excluded, shunned and played oblivious to its own problems. The debating community has not escaped the same segregation, selfish short-sightedness, arrogance and unnecessary misunderstanding which plagues so much of the ‘society’ from which we are quick to detach ourselves.

What am I talking about? I am talking about the deep-set hierarchical, elitist, and sometimes racist nature of South African Schools’ debating. Both consciously and subconsciously, this has become a system that makes it very clear that if you do not share a similar background to your private schooled, pale skinned counterparts, and share their same values and outlook on life, then you do not belong. We cannot deny it.

Let’s start with finances. Over the past two years, my parents have had to fork out over R80 000 for flights, tournaments and general expenses. The money was never sitting around. Fortunately, my family values formative experiences above a cushy bank account – however, I must make peace with the fact that I now have no savings for university.

So what about my teammates who struggled to pay the R1 600 for Nationals this year? Some of them are now Senior Open trialists. If they get selected for a national team, where is the financial aid structure within debating that will enable them to participate? Or are we going to continue pretending that it’s okay to assume all speakers can find their own way? This is something that needs to be addressed.

Then there is the elitism. Speakers from provinces other than the Big Two, or Academy speakers within all teams, are viewed and consequently treated as an extra on a set which was created for a very specific kind of actor. When we have speakers who are only speaking for the bare minimum of two debates, and are implicitly told that their participation is no longer required, you have to question what kind of message coaches are sending to the students. Exclusionary remarks, feigned ignorance, and a refusal to accept the obligation to make things better, feed into the deeply corruptive arrogance and “us and them thinking” that plagues debating all over the world.

So this is why at Nationals 2016 I was relieved to hear that speakers were finally calling out the blatant racism they had experienced for far too long. I watched a final debate that for once did not present us with the typical “higher level” topic that we have no more emotional care for than we do for most of the generic arguments we present in our debates these days. Anyone who remembers the final motion of 2013 will also remember cringing when fellow debaters, standing under our national flag in the Constitutional Court of South Africa, portrayed human life as almost unworthy of existence unless it served some utilitarian purpose. Or there was the Worlds final this year, where intelligent debaters told us that African refugees, who are used to the simple life of farming yams in the village, should simply be given warm coats to withstand the cold temperatures and sophisticated cultures of the Western world.

A motion like ‘THBT The Rainbow Nation Ideology Has Done More Harm Than Good’ reminded us why we do debating – not because we like the glory and competition, but because we realise at a deeper level that this is something that helps us better understand ourselves and our fellow humans, and gets us to engage with one another on issues that really matter to us.

I thought “Thank you!” when we listened to a final speech that included words like “Yo” and “Y’all”. We were shown that there is no one standard style that makes a person a good debater. Sometimes your lived experiences are far more valuable than any fancy vocabulary and ex-Model C accent. Sometimes all we want to hear is the truth as you know it, and that is enough to bring forth the power in what you are saying.

For the first time, I formed new friendships with people who have been attending every Nationals for the past four years just as I have, yet whose company I unfortunately have never had the privilege of sharing due to my own buy-in to the unspoken assumption that as debaters we must be hostile towards one another.

But most of all, my heart resounded with a “Yaaas” when the highest authority within our debating community said those words which we all needed, at some level, to hear: Fuck debating.

We don’t debate to shame each other and feed our egos. We debate because we have the capacity to expand our minds far beyond anything we know. We debate because we recognise that we can learn from others. We debate because these experiences help us form incredible relationships that will shape us for life. We debate because to speak is to convey ideas, and to convey ideas is to inspire change.

So now I urge all of us not to forget what we have learned here. I urge speakers to the step out of the shackles of elitist thinking – it will only limit your ability to fully experience the value of being a debater. I urge those involved in the running of the SASDB to see debating not for what it currently is, but for the immense potential that it has – to touch lives, change minds and breed world changers.

I have always personally believed that many of our world problems stem from simple human failings – core flaws such as guilt, anger, self-sufficiency and jealousy which manifest in complex ways. If we can acknowledge that our small efforts do make a difference to how people perceive the world, then we ought not to let slip this opportunity to allow debating to become great – not in the competitive, self-serving sense, but great in the truest, most fulfilling sense:  great in understanding, co-operation, transformation and empowerment. These are the things that will make South African debating truly great.


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