Monash Association of Debaters

Virendhren Naidoo

In Motions We Trust



This opinion piece, like its writer, is fixated on inclusivity in debate: in divining and contributing to mechanisms to achieve such the text does not spent time exalting on the incremental benefits of inclusivity, or the complete moral and spiritual formulae of community-making. The word-limit looms, and the unions are as many as cloth in a fabric shop. The particular fashion of transformation selected here is Motions: motion-setting as an actively-sensitive pursuit; as necessarily progressive; and as effective in bringing about better debating. This piece unpacks the manifestation of motions that deal with identity politics – class, race, gender, culture – to put forward generally applicable ideas for all debaters and debate communities. This paper uses examples of transformational space and forums in South African Debating driven or complimented by motion setting on contextual and “controversial” topics, to illustrate how debate motions and the contextual relations of people brought about ideas of inclusive practices in SA Debating: ideas that survive today as infrastructure and creates real equity.

What’s In A Motion?

A great motion does not only make us more insightful on a topic; it gives us imaginative space to think on, relate to, and if we can, transmit ideas toward self and community development. We as debaters recognize that Debateland is a microcosm of human society and our gains are its gains, its pains, ours. And motion-setting reflects that. In South Africa, our Debateland is just a toenail over the line from mirror-image toward the egalitarian utopia we strive for. YAKKA, the glory of international competition and longstanding regional competition have converted our circuit from its lazy re-enactment of our social issues to practicing a new religion of openness and just conflict.

A perfect example is the motion “This House Would close the Nationals 2011 Group”. In post-apartheid South Africa, the polarizing conversations on gender, race and class were creeping into Debateland. Our discourse on the prevailing perspectives was reaching an aggressive peak online, and many in our circuit felt the Facebook Group would endanger the reputation and stability of our community. The opposing stance was separated into two factions: one distinct sect believed the Group was a platform for truth however unsanitary and exploitative its expression, and its fellow, an umbrella of various types, believed that with moderation and consensus-making, whatever came from the Group online, transparently, was beneficial for enhancing the strength and collective conscious of SA Debating. By actually debating the motion at tournament, all debaters were existentially included in the discussion that was raging inside the federal structures and across unions. It was a momentous break from simply Debating. Regardless of what the rankings may reveal or how arguments were treated by judges, the motion coerced people to cross over the self-drawn lines of factionalism in healthy British Parliamentary style. In South Africa, Black, Women, Queer and Multi-lingual debaters use this bridge – this connection between what we debate and the realities we live, at the intersection of the desire for debate excellence, to change the ways in which the Privileged voices interact with the Othered and Oppressed voices, to get us all to participate in common purpose. It offers us the chance to relinquish our tight hold over our worldviews when they dominate and discriminate in context. It generally channels conflict into critical engagement.

This requires diagnosing the social relations that lead to division and exclusion, and exploiting conflict for debating value. This creates new motions by virtue of knowing what your Debateland is ready for. Early day motions like “THW allow same-sex couples to adopt” (UKZN training 2008) can be debated in new forms as what we know develops: “TH Supports an assimilationist LGBTI movement in Africa” or “THS a libertarian LGBTI movement in conservative communities”. As debate calls upon us to discuss and resolve ethical dilemmas, social problems are revealed as greatly solvable through interpersonal relations and thought-programmes. Where there is no public consensus in a liberal state, or where the social culture or rule of law prohibits revelation on a particular subject, where there is fear and insecurity even, there is an opportunity born from the underclass (as Marx once put1).

Exclusion And Inclusion: The Dialectic Of Power In Space

Hegel2 asserts that a listener and receiver create a debate, the dialectic that manifests their subject-hood in an ensuing exchange. Fanon3 accepts this, but situates the dialectic in the context of the listener and receiver: an understanding that a dominant voice claims and creates knowledge and shared-space, which the dominated voice exists in as its other. Thus, the Black, Woman and Queer debater cannot simply speak into space and claim and create knowledge: they must confront the White Male subject-voice that situates them as the Othered-voice. Inherently, the dominant subject-voice also suffers in their narrow conception of knowledge and cultural production. We as debaters recognize that Debateland is a microcosm of human society and our gains are its gains, its pains, ours. Debateland must be seen and questioned as a constructed space for consciousness. We should address motions and motion-setting as we do headlining, shafts and pronoun use4: things we philosophize on, update and track. As we saw with the overt misogyny perpetrated in the Glasgow Union Chamber5, we cannot assume well-established debate unions are neutral or positively disposed to inclusivity.

At times, a controversial motion needs to happen to advance a stalemate – sometimes you cannot foresee the controversies. What is clear is that debates that degenerate to ad hominem attacks or subtle heterosexism or transphobia, do so because of lack of knowledge and/or fear of the change in human social relations. Sometimes what you are seeing is not a bad speech or speaker, but a manifestation of a socially-accepted discrimination.

Domination Continued: A Side-Note On Controversial Motion-Setting

The above spoke to the positive knock-on effects, and maximising them. But when you set a motion like “THW carpet-bomb Mecca”, the intent is dubious. To me, it is not so much intending to be a digestible motion with intellectual gains that stimulate the imagination of your debate society; it appears to satisfy a latent, antisocial desire to exert violence, or rather, debate about using violence while ignoring a duty to be sensitive to fellow humans. That is graphic intellectual masturbation. It tells me that debaters in such imaginations are saturated in their own world-belief, and rather than look deeper into engagement between two worldviews, the motion created revels in the Otherness of one class. I don’t believe a debate union that is socially conscious and nourishes intellectual development would devise such a motion presupposing local or broader social gains. One could alternatively debate “TH Believes That the West should interrupt Hadj” or “THW militarily install moderate Islamist leadership”. If the intent is to activate your religious and secular debater alike, to bring both to the table in the spirit of debate and great argumentation, to discuss something that may be incendiary in public spaces, then the motion should not ask one side of the House to advocate violence of a genocidal proportion. Motions ought to assist us in learning to use our intellectual license, but also learn and reinforce sensitivity and social cohesion.

Better Debating (what to do beyond motion-setting): Debating can’t just be Sport anymore

… It was departure day of Pan-African Championships 2011 in Zimbabwe and South African Jan-Shawn Noah Malatje was arrested on suspicion of being homosexual. The full story is pinned to the Queer Forum Facebook Page, but following the dehumanising and quite hopeless incident, after diplomatic avenues turned into dead-ends, he and I resolved to do something about the lack of contingency when traveling.6 We were also depressed that the collective will did not come to our aid – weren’t we all debaters? We created Queer Forum in 2012 to enlist legal advice in the event that something went wrong. We didn’t know right then, we had created a space for consciousness and debate around LGBTI debaters’ experience in Debateland. This allowed us to compliment the already fertile soil of ideas on the issues. It is edging on 2016, and Queer Forum survives in a much more open and discursive environment. A Women’s Debate Forum has been incepted in South Africa with a Women’s Open invitational. The latter is too much to detail, so I will suffice to say that recognizing pernicious male-dominance led to women7 deciding that an effective women’s debate and development space would need to be exclusive.

As Queer Forum grew beyond infancy, cis gender and queer people were meeting together, expressing issues and lifting the presumption of ignorance. Our experience had taught us that working together allowed us to speak out and transform debate without invitations to Council. While Patriarchy8 in South Africa is so endemic that female-exclusive spaces need to exist, the Queer issue rests on the heterosexism in our Debateland – the endemic silence – that is among us and our fellows. Queer Forum allows us a space to Come Out, validate our voices and quash myth and misunderstanding – it also allowed me and queer debaters to relax around our fellow debaters as we felt like we were being heard in a new space within Debateland; we were no longer pretending that glass ceilings didn’t exist. Women, Black, Queer and Religious debaters feel a greater sense of participation in the evolution of Debate via active discoursing. This lessens the harm and violence of intellectual and personal interaction between delegates and/or newcomers to debate. As motions instigate critical thinking and argumentation organically, there is greater potential for individual and group action and emancipation. These translate into real equity.


Undeniably, debating ideology and culture coerces the debater to think about their beliefs and social position; to think about the position of different classes of individual. But debate motions – or rather, critical thinking – does not coerce us as debaters to readily accept or promulgate rights/equality of vulnerable persons in society. So to set the ground running for inclusive practices within Debateland, we ought to be cognizant of opportunities for inclusive practices like spontaneous discourse: and the motions likely to create them or emerge from them. Whether directly or indirectly progressive in intention, adjudicator cores should set motions on current affairs and controversial topics – debating motions on gender, race, class and culture ought to stimulate thinking at minimum, and inspire transformation in the long-term.

Time to open the box carefully. We ought to learn from unions that make abhorrent mistakes and successful ventures alike. It makes us better in our manner, flexible on perspective, and makes us activated citizens. This makes debating relevant to society and creatively sustainable. Protecting diversity of individuals and ideas allows us to benefit from the productivity that comes with it. Smart motion-setters keeps debating relative to our social ethics and relevant to participants’ lived and Debateland realities. This is progressive thinking.

  1. Karl Marx spoke of the inherent revolutionary tendency of the underclass in a hegemonic status quo. It is in the nature of the dominated to voice and act out liberation.

  2. Georg Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit (1807) unpacks Hegel’s interpretation of relations between beings in space manifesting mind and culture; the nuance of subject-object relations is not necessary here.

  3. Frantz Fanon’s philosophy is arguably best conceptualized through reading “The Wretched of the Earth” (1961) and “Black Skin White Masks” (1967), but the critique of the dialectic is in the later text.

  4. An idea first espoused by Crash Wigley, a transgender debater addressing the discomfort and misgendering that occurs in debate-spaces.

  5. “The Sexism I Faced at the Glasgow University Union” by Rebecca Meredith:

  6. We were joined by Keith Vries, Mmeli Notsch, Comine Howe and Romeo Gumede in ensuing years for projects such as branded T-Shirts and research surveys.

  7. Over a four year period, implicating Lindelwe Dube, Athinangomso Ester Nkopo, Kimera Chetty, Limpho Moeti, Noluthando Yeni, Judith Kakese Mukuna, Lee Moraka Masilo, and Charity Makhala.

  8. A theory set forth definitely, by bell hooks in her 2009 chapter “Understanding patriarchy”.