Discussing South Africa’s history of human rights violations is not an easy task, but it was required for The Mvubu Debates at George Washington University. By the end of the collegiate debate competition, a pair of University of Houston students expertly delivered sound arguments on reconciling the social injustices committed in that country.
UH Speech and Debate team members Eric Lanning and Tanweer Rajwani took the top honors in The Mvubu Debates. The duo defeated Harvard University in the event’s final round and earned a study tour of South Africa.
Universities from across the nation competed at The Mvubu Debates, and debaters addressed the topic “Resolved: The South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission is a Desirable Model for Transitional Reconciliation.”
“The core question of the debate focused on how societies that have suffered gross human rights violations reconcile the past with the present.” Lanning said. “Basically, it addresses how these societies move on while holding perpetrators accountable and giving victims time to heal.”
Lanning and Rajwani addressed how the world can learn from South Africa’s transition from apartheid to democracy. During the competition, they were tasked with arguing in favor of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC), a restorative justice group created after the abolition of apartheid. In a separate round, the students had to switch their arguments to challenge the effectiveness of the TRC.
“We had several judges approach us after the competition and tell us that it was impressive that we could be passionate about both sides of the issue,” Lanning said. “The panel of judges in the final round had representatives of the Rawandan and South African embassies. These were people who lived through the Rawandan genocide and South African apartheid. Being judged by these individuals and meeting them after the competition was a life-changing experience.”
Lanning soon will have another transformational experience. In January, he and Rajwani will travel to South Africa and visit several historic sites and meet human rights leaders.
“We will meet Desmond Tutu, who chaired the TRC,” Lanning said. “We’ll also visit Robben Island, where Nelson Mandela was held prisoner and see where current South African president Jacob Zuma lives.”
The Mvubu Debates were sponsored by The Civis Institute in partnership with the Institute for Public Diplomacy and Global Communication at the George Washington University, the Impact Young Lives Foundation and the U.S. State Department.
The win is another victory for UH’s Speech and Debate team. This year, it also took top honors at competitions at the University of North Texas and the University of Texas at Dallas. UH debaters also were quarter-finalists in the National Debate Tournament and were runners up at The Lafayette Debates at George Washington University. As a result of their performance at the Lafayette Debates, Lanning and teammate Danny Alexander were among students selected for a study tour of France.
The Speech and Debate Team is based within UH’s Honors College. It is directed by Sarah Spring, an instructional assistant professor in the Honors College. Spring resurrected the dormant Speech and Debate program in 2012, and it continues to thrive on campus and in competitions across the state and the nation. Other coaches include Honors College lecturers Josh Gonzalez and Richard Garner.
“Debate gives UH students the opportunity to compete with the world's best,” Spring said. “Debate rewards creativity, hard work and intelligence, which is why its perfect for UH students.”