“On a point of correction”… “Point of information!”

These words come to mind as I reflect on my debating career, or should I say ‘journey’, which spans over a decade now.

I was introduced to the art of word combat when I was in what was Standard 3 then, now called Grade 5, by my English teacher, Miss Billie. She must have noticed how noisy, passionate and opinionated I was, I am sure! And, so the best way to keep me talking more constructively would have to be through debating. I laugh at this when I think about it.

There were about 83 pupils in my Standard 3 classroom; I remember how hot the classrooms would be all through-out the year due to over-crowding. We sat in alphabetical order and having both my first and last name being the last letter of the alphabet, I stood no chance at sitting by the door, where the fresh breeze came from. There was bound to be some form of chaos in that back row. But, you know how they always say,

“Diamonds are found in the ruff”!

I went to Dalubuhle J.S.S a local school in my township, Payne Location where I stayed in the heart of Mthatha – Eastern Cape. My school was not popular for anything really, apart from being named after the chief of the area. My English teacher had a vision of helping her pupils master the English language as it was seen to be a language that opens doors for people.

“Zimela!” she said this one day, calling out names from some list that seemed important.

“Yes, Miss,” I responded nervously.

“Stand outside with the other learners.”

Little did I know that this was the day I was chosen in my class as one of the pupils who would be part of the first ever debating society in the history of our school. Fear coursed through my veins as I realised just how unpolished my English was. Yet, determination and curiosity said,

“Let’s give this a try”.

We would meet every Wednesday to go through what Miss Billie called a ‘Topic Bank’. During this time different topics would be written out in cut-out papers and folded for us to choose from. If it was your turn to choose that Wednesday, then you would lead your team in researching the topic, and the following Friday two teams would debate it.

It was frightening at first but I grew to love it. At the time we were using the Cambridge style of debating where you would have two teams ( proposition and opposition) with three members in each team. Each speaker would be given three minutes to speak. I particularly loved being the last speaker, I don’t know, I guess the whole last letter of the alphabet in my name and surname thing carried far beyond the register of a classroom. That position was called chief whip and it was sought after: you had to be persuasive and be a good listener because you were not allowed to bring about new points in the debate, your role was to strictly rebut.

We grew and developed our comprehension, not only did our English improve but we became more curious and we read a lot. It was an honour and a milestone in my life that paved the way for the rest of my life.

When I left Dalubuhle J.S.S to go study at St. Martin’s Private School, I was ready, and I felt confident that I would not just disappear in the crowd as a mere pupil from a township school, but that I would contend equally with my peers. Debate had prepared me for this transition, as my mother had hoped. I remember my first week at St. Martin’s; all we spoke was English from 08:00 AM – 02:00 PM – a new routine. I credit my ability to cope with that transition to what Miss Billie did and how she made us fall in love with the art of word combat. Unfortunately there wasn’t a debating society at St. Martin’s. However this was during the time of Outcomes Based Education (OBE) and many lessons required presentations and discussions. I managed just fine.

When I left St.Martin’s for high school, I could say I was once again ready and prepared. Luckily for me, the high school I went to had a well-established debating society, and needless to say when we had to choose extra-curricular activities, I chose debate.

Upon matriculating, I went to the Walter Sisulu University in East London to further my studies. I remember the first day of orientation week, I asked if there was a debating society and the student advisor said,

“No, not at this campus.”

My heart sank. I was determined that by the time the year was over, there would be a society. And, indeed that was the case. I was part of the team which formed the first ever debating society in the East London campuses and was chair for two years. You see that is another thing that debate does to you, it gives you confidence and determination. Articulation is such a powerful tool, especially if you have done your research and thought about what you want to communicate.

I have competed and won numerous championships. Yet still, to this day, every time I have to stand in front of people, I feel as nervous as I felt when I was in Standard 3 when I heard my name being called, yet as confident as I felt when we won our first argument in Standard 3 as well. It is a feeling I never get enough or get used to and one that has moulded, shaped and moved my life.

I had assumed that debating was about big and bold English! But, I learned that it goes way beyond that; there is voice projection, annunciation, body language, eye contact, being presentable, having a mental clock – all these things are part of the toolkit.

I am grateful to have been taught and mentored by people who saw potential I was not aware of, who took the time to sharpen me to a point where I could be confident in my abilities. There is much to tell, but I think I will leave it on this note: “Give it a try.”