Whether they see Nelson Mandela as a saviour or a sell-out, it’s clear the youths taking part in the Nelson Mandela Debating Challenge 2018 are grateful for the freedom of speech he and others won for them.
The challenge is the first of its kind to engage youths on Madiba’s legacy as part of the Nelson Mandela Foundation's outreach and education efforts. It is the result of a partnership between the Foundation and Tshimong, a social enterprise that trains high-schoolers in debating.
“The idea that a man who was seen as a terrorist by some, and a liberator by others can become the champion of everyone, [that he can] walk the line between actually doing something to help people while [making it seem] like he is trying to knock down others – this is something some people call him a sell-out for, but I feel [it is something] I would like to reward him for,” says Mmeli Mpondo (17).
In contrast, Robert Matenjwa (16) says he feels that many of the policies and pieces of legislation Mandela saw passed while he was president from 1994 to 1999 ended up oppressing black people.
Both teenagers – and several of their peers – feel Mandela won for them and their peers the space to be able to say whatever they want.
After Mandela’s 1994 inauguration as South Africa’s first democratically elected president, the country promulgated a Constitution with a Bill of Rights that secures freedom of speech.
“The legacy of Madiba isn’t one that says listen to what everyone says,” says Matenjwa, who is a member of the South African Junior Debating Team. “It’s one that tells you to question everything around you; to question whether you are where you deserve to be; to question whether his very legacy that we learn about today is the legacy that is the truth; to question whether he could have done things better because he is just a human like the rest of us.”
Debating develops intangible, but crucial, skills, says Tshimong Managing Director Thami Pooe. The Nelson Mandela Debating Challenge pits 50 learners from schools in each of the nine provinces against each other.
Pooe says the challenge has been crafted to allow participants to explore Mandela’s life, times and legacy, and to interrogate these topics. “Debating is an integral learning tool. It’s not just debating, it’s leadership [that is learned through debating],” he says.
Reitumetse Kganyago (16) says the several years she has spent debating at school and nationally have allowed her to learn things she otherwise would not have.
“You learn how you, as an individual, can actually change society and different points of view on society, and how you can [use new perspectives] to move forward,” she says.
“The Nelson Mandela Debating Challenge gives us a platform to learn about South Africa’s history and how Mandela has changed South Africa’s history,” Kganyago says.
Mandela was one of those individuals who, although there was no specific call on him to do so, took up the burden of battling apartheid, says Siyabonga Mtshali (16).
“Everyone else had internalised that fear [of the might of the apartheid state]. We were all scared to fight against the power, but one individual refused to internalise that pain and took it upon himself,” says Mtshali.
“I think I didn’t realise how much Mandela’s legacy meant to me until I came here,” Madzanga Ramabulana (16) says of her participation in the challenge. “Mandela started something great and I think it is up to us to continue that. Without the platform he gave us – the transition from the apartheid era to the democratic South Africa – I wouldn’t be here speaking about these issues.”
Watch a video about the event here: