Battling it out with words
As a white woman, due to some mix of talent, coaching and unearned privilege, I made my way onto the South African National Schools’ Debating Team at age 14. I am very much a product of debating, but only saw the problematic and elitist nature of it in university. Indiscriminate access to debating is paramount, so that the lottery of birth does not determine whether or not you have access to it as a platform.
There are no school bells that ring over the weekend to indicate the next period, or teachers hurrying pupils along the corridors to get to class, but some dedicated learners put on their school shirts and ties and head to the classroom to battle it out with words.
Almost 180 learners from Philippi, Khayelitsha, Gugulethu and other township areas across Cape Town congregate every few weeks, throughout the year, to participate in debates with the Thethani Debating League (TDL). TDL is a non-profit organisation which was started by students at the University of Cape Town in 2004. The students coach debating to high school learners in 19 under-resourced schools across the townships of Cape Town.
The debates get pupils grappling with important topics ranging from the FeesMustFall protests and the refugee crisis in Syria, to gender neutral bathrooms. The atmosphere is an exciting mix of playful banter and fierce competition, but, regardless of who wins, the debate only ends when the learners cross the floor and shake hands.
More than just words
Debating is a powerful tool for youth development. Research has shown that school children who take part in debate are more likely to complete high school. Rodie Ackerman and Ian Neale, for instance, wrote in their paper ‘Debating the evidence: an international review of current situation and perceptions’, that debaters in urban American high schools were 25% more likely to complete high school than non-debaters..
Critical thinking is one of the key skills that comes with debating. Debating challenges pre-conceptions and ideas of “set-in-stone” truths. The mechanism for this is that the teams are given a motion or topic and then randomly assigned either proposition or opposition. Those that are proposition are tasked with defending that motion while opposition rebuts it. This means that you are often forced to argue against the side that you find most intuitive, challenging or enhancing your own beliefs about the world.
Additionally, refutation is a crucial aspect of debate. The proposing and opposing teams cannot simply state their arguments as if they exist in a vacuum; they have to engage with the material presented by the other side and show its flaws. In addition to that, they have to defend their matter from attacks and make arguments in a robust way. This back-and-forth teaches young debaters how to be nuanced in their own argumentation, defend their stances when doubt is cast and critically engage with opposing arguments.
Commanding the floor
Confidence is a crucial part of self-actualisation. When you perform well in a debate, which means you were able to intellectually out-manoeuvre your opponents, it can be very empowering. Some TDL learners have described a profound sense of control and strength during their speeches. They command the floor and have everyone listening and engaging with their insights on an important topic. The practical implications of this kind of experience are endless. For example, one of the most powerful comments I have ever seen on our feedback forms at the end of a tournament was, in response to a question about the impact that debating has had on their lives, a girl wrote “I now raise my hand when I have a question in class.” Although one’s first speech is often an incredibly nerve-wracking and scary experience, debating seems to really make young people trust their own voices and improve their ability to communicate. One of our learners described debating as a “platform to share my views and opinions”.
General knowledge is one of the most valuable aspects of debating competitively. The content of debates helps teach young people about the state of our world and often inspires learners to follow global trends and events. In South Africa, this is specifically useful because an understanding of the constitution, human rights and government obligations is essential to being an active and politically engaged citizen.
The barriers to entry remain for many
However, it is important to confront the barriers to entry in debating. It typically involves hiring a private coach or being reliant on volunteer coaches. This means that the benefits associated with debating (critical thinking skills, general knowledge and confidence) are often reserved for an elite few that attend private schools or are involved with the few debating development organisations. The socio-economic structure and stratified nature of South African society means that white learners often have more access to debating structures and institutions than black learners. Furthermore, the very few debating development organisations that exist often rely on a predominantly white volunteer base. This creates a situation in which black students are asked to “perform” debating and be adjudicated under the gaze of their white judges. South African debating development structures need more money and more black volunteers.
Debating is a great medium for transformation because it is a tool, not an outcome in itself. Many other development initiatives take the form of “we have decided that this community needs X and will give it to them”. Conversely, learners can choose what they want to get out of debating. If you want to learn about the environment, voice projection, university applications, the constitution, social media or any other issue- there is a way to do that in debating. It is a great tool that needs to be shared.