Two postgraduate students from Stellenbosch University (SU) recently made history by being part of the first-ever South African team to win the French inter-university debate tournament hosted by the Agence Universitaire de la Francophone (AUF). The three-member beat the competing team from the University of Paris II Panthéon Assas in Mauritius, which consisted entirely out of mother-tongue speakers.
The team that took part in the 7th Inter-University Debate Tournament in French (TIUD7) came about through the collaborative efforts of the French sections from SU and the University of Cape Town (UCT). Mr Jaco du Plooy, a lecturer and MA student from the Modern Foreign Languages Department in the Faculty of Arts and Social Sciences at SU, bore team leadership responsibilities. Joining him were honours students in French, Ms Willow-Ruby van der Berg (US) and Ms Mia Todd (UCT).
The debate, held in the Indian Ocean Region of the AUF, focused on Social innovation and Development. The AUF, founded nearly 60 years ago, is one of the largest associations of higher education and research institutions in the world, bringing together 944 universities, colleges and scientific research centers from 116 countries that educate and produce work in French.
What makes the team's win even more impressive is the fact that the three speak French as a third language, which is not the case for the nearly 120 students from the 36 teams that participated in the tournament. There were two teams from South Africa that participated, the other being from the University if Kwazulu-Natal (UKZN). Other than these two, there were 23 teams from Madagascar, 3 Mauritius, 5 from Kenya, and 3 from the Comoro Islands who participated. Unfortunately, the team from UKZN were eliminated in the preliminary round.
“At first, the fact that the tournament was conducted entirely in French, was our biggest stressor, because we had to also do all our research in French. We got French news articles as far as possible, but we also wanted to bring in the South African context with our examples in order to give it a more global feel that linked with local issues too," says Du Plooy.
According to Du Plooy, the competition was extended to a few non-Francophone countries this year, which allowed South Africa to participate for the first time.
“It was Prof Catherine du Toit, the Chair of the Modern Foreign Languages Department and Vice-Dean of the Faculty who encouraged us to sign up. She was also the one that coached and guided us through the process," explained Du Plooy, who was also the team leader.
“It still feels surreal to think that we not only had the opportunity to take part in an international French debate but that we actually won it!," added Van der Berg.
“I remember telling Prof Du Toit that I was not sure if I should compete, because I did not think that my French was good enough. However, her faith in me and my abilities edged me on to plunge into it and try my best. Without her support I would never have thought to embark on such a feat and I am so grateful for her because she believed in our team from the get-go."
In the first “live" online round of the tournament, explained Du Plooy, the team had to produce a video discussing Social innovation: Does it bring efficient answers to social economic and environmental problems?. That was followed by three live rounds, where each team who made it through to the next round were informed two hours after the debate and presented with a new topic to discuss in the next round the following day. The second round focused on The institutionalisation of social innovations: Is it synonymous with the disengagement/withdrawal of the State, with the SU-UCT team arguing against. The third and final round focused on Social innovation as a long lasting and sustainable answer: Is it just a short answer to a problem or can it be sustainable in the long-term?
“It was very nerve-wrecking," said Du Plooy.
“Researching a topic in French and then having to debate that topic is challenging, but as soon as you start to get into it, it becomes interesting. In a sense, the research skills you build up as a postgrad also kicks in. So I think it was a valuable experience that became very interesting as we delved deeper into the topic and started learning more about what social innovation is."
Reflecting on their win, Van der Berg said: “It's difficult to put into words how much I learnt from this experience. It definitely expanded my French vocabulary because the topics weren't necessarily in my field of knowledge and interests. My participation in this competition piquéd my interest into what it is that the AUF represent, what their objectives are and their important support to Francophone countries and individuals."
“As we do not live in a country where French is spoken by many, AUF has given us an opportunity to form part of this francophone network in Africa, which can open various doors to us," she added.
Du Plooy said that one of the most important things he learnt from participating in the tournament, is how valuable multilingualism is.
“Given the current discussions on campus regarding language and language in general, something like this, being able to win as a non-Francophone country against actual first language French speakers made me think about the value of multilingualism. Being able to speak more languages, is a good thing and something to be cherished and valued. We found that we got so much more information on certain topics because we could do the research in French and in the process opened ourselves up to a world of different knowledge that we would not otherwise have been exposed to."
Photo: Two postgraduate students, Mr Jaco du Plooy and Ms Willow-Ruby van der Berg, from Stellenbosch University (SU) recently made history by being part of the first-ever South African team to win the French inter-university debate tournament hosted by the Agence Universitaire de la Francophone (AUF). (Photo taken by Aurélia Mouton)