Bridging The Racial Divide: Model United Nations South Africa

"Education is the most powerful weapon to change the world."
- Nelson Mandela
One of the most enduring legacies of apartheid is that an entire generation of black South Africans was deprived of a decent education by a system designed to entrench racial oppression and subjugation. Fourteen years after South Africa became a democracy, the legacy of the country's racist past has not been completely extinguished. While "whites-only" schools are a thing of the past, the reality is that the majority of black students in South Africa today are poor and the majority of white students are not. As part of several efforts to bridge the racial chasm that lingers in parts of the country, a unique programme called the South African Model United Nations Debate Competition stands out.
In spite of being a founding member of the United Nations, South Africa was increasingly isolated from the Organization during the 1970s and 1980s, as the international campaign against apartheid intensified. Hence, when UN agencies established offices in Pretoria in the mid-1990s, they faced a society that was largely unaware of the broader global community and the United Nations in particular. South Africa's active participation in the United Nations over the past decade has increased the awareness of the general public considerably, including the country's hosting of the 2001 World Conference on Racism in the city of Durban. To commemorate the fiftieth anniversary of the United Nations in 1995, the Government under Nelson Mandela, together with the newly established UN agencies in Pretoria, inaugurated the South African Model UN Debate Competition. To ensure that participants were from a cross-section of society, it was decided that each team would comprise two students from a previously disadvantaged school and two from a previously advantaged school.
The objective of this criterion was twofold: 1. to prevent a situation whereby well-resourced schools, which have the advantage of easier access to information sources, win every debate against lesser-resourced schools in the black townships; and 2. to facilitate dialogue between students and teachers, who would otherwise not be engaging with each other, thereby lowering racial barriers and encouraging socialization and, ultimately, nation-building.
Teams from each of the nine provinces in the country competed against each other as they debated issues of global importance. The inaugural event was a great success and the winning team of nine high school students from every corner of the country accompanied President Mandela to the fiftieth session of the General Assembly in New York, amid much fanfare and jubilation, as post-apartheid South Africa returned to the international arena. The 1995 event was so successful that a Johannesburg-based non-governmental organization, Education Africa, in conjunction with a student organization, the Model UN of South Africa, began holding the debate annually, with funding from the South African corporate sector.
The South African Ministry of Education invites schools throughout the country to participate in the competition. Training sessions are held in all nine provinces at which the students -- who are on average 16 and 17 years old -- are introduced to Model UN debating. After they are given a topic and assigned a country to represent, the teams, each comprising four students, have three months to prepare for a provincial debate. Among the issues debated are child labour, climate change, HIV/AIDS, peacekeeping, terrorism and xenophobia. The winning team from each province is then invited to participate in the three debates at the national finals in Cape Town two months later. At the end of the national finals, the best team from one of the provinces and one student each from the remaining eight provinces qualify to form the national delegation that will then participate in the annual international Model UN Conference in New York.
The 12 students chosen as South Africa's delegation to the international Model UN Conference are selected on the basis of how accurately they represented their assigned country and the effectiveness of their teamwork. It is this second factor that makes the project unique: irrespective of the students' socio-economic background or the lack of resources of their school, it is their awareness of the world that matters most -- and everybody in a team gets to participate.
Each team is assigned a tutor, usually a university student, who is expected to assist in coaching the team members. In addition, teachers from both previously advantaged and previously disadvantaged schools are also expected to lend a helping hand. The team's annual participation at the international Model UN Conference garners much attention. For the past three years, the South African delegations have won a number of awards, including the 2007 "Best Small Delegation" award at the International Model UN Conference held at Cornell University.
The winning team from the most recent competition comprised two boys from Morris Isaacson High School in Soweto, where the famous 1976 uprising began, and two girls from Hoerskool Linden, an Afrikaans medium high school in Johannesburg. Coming from totally disparate communities, these four young people were born in the year that Nelson Mandela was released and have effectively grown up in a free country. Nevertheless, they also belong to a generation that is in some ways almost as racially divided as the generation of their parents, who grew up during the height of the apartheid system. It is ironic that the Soweto uprising was a response to the forced use of Afrikaans as the language of instruction in black schools. Today, two boys from this school pair up with two girls from a white Afrikaans school representing their country proudly.
Watching these four remarkable young people energetically debating the issues of child labour, human trafficking and HIV/AIDS while representing their assigned country, Zimbabwe, was exhilarating. Although none of them had English as a first language, the dynamic team successfully represented their assigned country and demonstrated a spirited level of teamwork.
Like Rome, a non-racial democracy cannot be built in a day. Fourteen years after Nelson Mandela was sworn in as South Africa's first democratically elected President, signifying the end of racist rule in his country, the challenges remain. Mistrust, anger, dispossession and resentment from many sides are part of the legacy that apartheid has left in South Africa. However, slowly and surely, this harsh legacy is diminishing. And it is happening partly because a new generation of young South Africans is learning together and committing itself to make the future better than the past. The South African Model UN programme is in many ways the embodiment of this change.
Past participants of the programme, who today are active in various sectors of society, including government, the judiciary and media, all attribute where they are today to the Model UN programme. Thanks to the programme, they said, the exposure to other South Africans from different communities changed their mindsets, opening up new ways of thinking for them.
It is particularly fitting that the Final Awards ceremony is held on Robben Island, a place that embodies the oppression of man against man and, at the same time, the triumph of the human spirit as personified by Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years -- 15 of them on the island. As part of this year's programme, the participating students will spend the night on the island -- an extremely rare opportunity -- and will participate in a fireside chat with former political prisoners as they discuss their feelings and views on growing up in a post-apartheid society where race remains a dominant theme in the national discourse.
In 2006, all 36 students participating in the finals were part of a fireside chat with the Deputy Chief Justice of South Africa's Constitutional Court, Dikgang Moseneke. Imprisoned on the island when he was a 15-year-old boy because of his anti-apartheid activities, Justice Moseneke was the youngest political prisoner ever incarcerated there. During his many years of imprisonment, he completed his schooling and law degree by correspondence and left the island a qualified human rights lawyer.

Grouped in a large circle around Justice Moseneke, the students were asked to define "What does freedom mean to me?" The responses were as varied as the group itself, but the overarching consensus was clear: this is a generation that has learnt not to take freedom for granted, and South Africa's painful racist past now firmly belongs in the past.
The South African Model United Nations High School Debate Competition affords the United Nations a unique opportunity to engage directly and tangibly with South Africa's future leaders. The young people, many from economically deprived communities, come alive as they debate the issues that confront humanity today. For them the United Nations is a living, breathing embodiment of the ideals on which it was founded -- and the ideals on which the struggle against apartheid and racial oppression was based.
The South African Model UN programme is a unique and stimulating initiative, helping to heal past divisions and create new opportunities for dialogue, while building bridges across racial divides and instilling a true sense of awareness, empathy and tolerance, both nationally and in the global community that is the United Nations.