The Wits debating team has embarked on a project to teach pupils and prisoners the “art of debate”. The team is the highest-ranked debating team in South Africa, after having claimed victory at the South African Debating National Championship in Port Elizabeth last year.

“The focus of our community outreach programme is to go into disadvantaged schools in Soweto where English is a barrier for most students, and train them to be more confident in speaking,” says Mvuyo Makhasi, a biomedical engineering student and member of the debating team.

“When I was in high school Wits students trained and adjudicated our debates, and this is our way of giving back to our schools, by helping the younger scholars develop their skills.”

The team is also working on a project with the Department of Correctional Services to teach prisoners how to debate, as part of their rehabilitation. “We’re looking at ways to get the project up and running. It’s a brand new project and could potentially be very rewarding, so it is something we’re more than willing to give our all to and see how it goes,” Makhasi says.

“Debating is a culture within the university and, even in a small capacity, we want to conscientise the whole of South Africa, because there is a lot of skill to be gained in learning to debate.”

Makhasi says that debating has given him confidence and helped him become a more grounded person. “Apart from thinking on the spot and understanding the importance of making logical arguments, debating teaches us to evaluate things, to pay attention to detail and not to be too quick to judge. To become a clear, rational speaker, one has to recognise the importance of communication – being able to think rationally, speak and be heard,” he says.

The team will be defending their Pan African University title in Zimbabwe and progress to the World Universities Debating Tournament in the Philippines later this year.