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I have been a litle quiet on the posting front lately, ’tis true. This was due in a large part (read entirely) to probably the largest side-interest in my life besides wanting to travel to new places whenever possible. Which is to say, debating.

Somewhere in the course of my years as a student, I picked up an abnormal addiction to debating as a competitive activity (possibly even as a sport, depending on your point of view, since Frisbee was considered such at the institution I studied at). There is little more gratifying to one’s ego as a loud and frequently humorous clashing of intellect coupled with the opportunity to discuss intensely many of the big issues in the world (Darfur, military intervention in Africa and, at less serious times, whether certain of South Africa’s less-progressive cities in the Free State would be better off converted into monuments to the early 80’s).

Now out of university and a part of that insecure maelstrom affectionately referred to as the real world, I have kept in touch with a number of debaters both out of and still involved in the university circuit. Partly because of the excellent, witty and intelligent company they afford and partly because I still very much enjoy the occasional invitational tournaments and other happenings that it means I can get to compete in from time to time.

This last week saw the South African Universities’ Championships happening in Johannesburg, organised by my alma mater, the University of the Witwatersrand and its forever-ambitious debating union, currently headed by Joe. As the alumnus most unable to say no to helping debaters and able to do interesting things with websites and programming, I became the guy who made sure that their online registration system and tournament fixture matching software (itself the possible subject of an entire thesis by itself) all functioned as required to keep the hundred plus teams matched up with opponents during the course of the tournament.

Attended by debating teams from dozens of universities and technikons from across South Africa and as far afield as Namibia, Botswana and Zimbabwe, the tournament forms something of a jewelled centerpiece of the South African debating calendar.  This, in turn, meant precious little sleep for Joe, myself and the rest of the committee making sure that everyone received their adequate dose of epic fun. To put it into a little more context for those readers for whom the idea of a community of debaters is either utterly foreign or quintessentially dorky – and full of people who use words like ‘quintessentially’ – there are a few key elements to making the National Championships, in particular, the sort of event which deserves the brief sacrifice of one’s life.

The final debate. A savage clashing of wit and intellect, after which a shiny trophy weighing more than a reasonable baggage aloowance on the flight home is won. Along with everlasting glory and boasting rights.

The final debate. A savage clashing of wit and intellect, after which a shiny trophy weighing more than a reasonable baggage allowance on the flight home is won. Along with everlasting glory and boasting rights.

The first part of a debating tournament is, of course, debating. This usually consists of the current speaker agitating in a scowling tone as to why his or her particular perspective on an issue is marginally less nutty than that of the opposing team, done for the benefit of a panel of adjudicators whose occasional scorn at a bad argument may bear a passing resemblance to that of the speaker for his opposing team. Motions in the tournament varied from the not-unexpected ‘This house would arm merchant ships travelling through the Gulf of Aden against pirates’ to the wholly unexpected ‘This house would legalise consensual, non-reproductive incest’. In the latter case, it was fascinating and not a little entertaining to observe the differences in style and argument between the relatively liberal South African teams and those from places such as Namibia, where being gay is still criminal – never mind being tolerated to the point of marriage.

Those who cant do... stand in judgement of the ones with the loud opinions

Those who can't do... stand in judgment of the ones with the loud opinions

For those who are not so keen on speaking (or who are keen on being judgmental), there is the opportunity of being an adjudicator in the competition. Sitting on panels in each debate and graded in their own separate competition, adjudicators have the unenviable job of having to listen to bluster of the best and worst teams in each round before deciding the final placings of the teams competing in the round. After which everyone who did not place first (there are four teams in a debate) will usually be dissatisfied and begin grumbling in varying degrees of directness about the decision. Fortunately, nobody  usually takes such grumbling of another team seriously (and least of all the adjudicators themselves). More often than not, the teams in question are clearly to blame for their own failings – as was the case with the pair who argued that allowing celebrities to adopt children from other cultures would expose them to the largely gay and immoral lifestyles that they lived.  I have never fancied being an adjudicator, but I do admire their patience with some of the reasoning they are made to listen to.

Yakka. As dangerous as it is yellow.

Yakka. As dangerous as it is yellow.

Finally and somewhat ironically at a competition which is dedicated to intellectual rigor and the pursuit of convincing and eloquent argument, there are the terribly entertaining and alcoholic evening functions. Most particular among these is Yakka Night, when the announcement is made as to which teams will be able to proceed to the quarterfinals, and which have now been knocked out of the competition. Yakka itself is a delightful lemon punch traditionally brewed by the University of Stellenbosch – known more widely as a source of some of the best red wine you will find in the world outside of France.  It also generally contains a criminally large amount of offensively cheap vodka hidden underneath a bouquet of lemon, sugar and ice. My particular role on this evening was to be a sheepdog to tipsy delegates and drive one particularly unrestrained individual to the Johannesburg General Hospital.

For those debating friends who I know will want to know the specific details of the competition, this year’s event wholly surpassed anything that has been hosted in South Africa to date. Thanks in a large part to a generous sponsorship by Standard Bank, everything was fantastically organised and managed to the finest degree by a committee of Wits university debaters and a handful of hacks such as yours truly. People who spent much of yesterday in a state of permanent hibernation. The final results in the various categories were:

Winners of the EFL (English First Language) category:

Chris McConnachie and Michael Anderson from Rhodes University

Winners of the ESL (English Second Language) category:

Ayanda Siyuyu and Bonga Malewa from the University of Cape Town

Best EFL Speaker:

Daniel de Kadt from the UNiversity of KwaZulu Natal

Best ESL Speaker:

Albert Titus from the University of Namibia

Best New EFL Speaker:

Michael Anderson from Rhodes University. Incorrectly announced originally as Razina Thokan from Wits University, as the committee – in great excitement – never thought to consider that the winning team might have a first-year debater in it.

Best New ESL Speaker:

Mhlanganisi Madlongolwai from the University of the Free State

Best Public Speaker:

Leon Jamaine Mithi from Wits University

Best New Adjudicator:

Nezi Ndamasa from the University of the Free State

Best Adjudicator:

Deborah Nixon from The University of Pretoria

And so that, then, is my excuse for my recent disappearance. Upon waking from my own exhausted collapse yesterday afternoon, I have managed to make some additional headway on the Cape to Cairo plotting which will be shared in the very near future. But for now, lemons, liberals and a wild diversion from the usual themes will have to suffice.