The society was started on the 21st of April 1865 by Robert Fair, O.C. Mostert and the Reverend J.I. Marais and was soon joined by Frank Reitz, D. Kannemeyer and James Sauer, with the first meetings being held under the supervision of the janitor.
The motto was Fare Quae Sentias (“Speak What You Think”), and some of the first topics included the executions of Charles I and Mary Queen of Scots as well as whether the pen or the sword is mightier. The meetings were held on Friday evenings, which was later changed to Saturday mornings to accommodate outside students.
The society was apparently banned for a time in 1882 by the Senate “owing to some disorder connected from its meetings.” In the 1890s the University’s Janitor “was an old soldier, a bit of a martinet, and with a rather surly temper, and occasionally let his temper run away with his discretion. The Debating Society held various skirmishes with him and he had to be severely admonished by the Senate for locking the Society out of the hall and refusing to light the lamps on the grounds that the society did not pay him enough for his troubles.”
Other events during this time were the first introduction of lady members “after a discussion that continued into midnight.” Medals were given out in 1896 and the first inter-collegiate Debating was held with Stellenbosch. “Heckling time” was also introduced and the Society’s hat nights were apparently very popular.
The society celebrated its 50th Anniversary in 1914 and published a Jubilee Souvenir. The society held regular meetings, where some of the speeches were given in Dutch and the balance of its accounts was £13 – 17 – 11 1/2. However, in the 1920s there was a drop in attendance at all UCT societies and “even the venerable Debating Society found its support flagging at times. In 1922 it was compelled to offer tea and buns after meetings and the occasional dance to remind people of its existence.”
During the 1930s the Society staged provocative discussions to attract membership. “Organised Religion is a hindrance to Civilisation” drew a record audience of 350. There was also a “particularly daring” convention breaking debate against a ‘coloured’ team from the Cape Literary and Debating Society.
It seems as if the Debating Society had an interesting relationship with College House in the 1930s. One year, College House reportedly invaded the Society’s first meeting to stage the annual “Highlands Brigade” variety concert. In 1933 “College House students again showed their mettle as UCT’s ‘tough guys’ when they publicly dissociated themselves from the Debating Society’s ‘For King and Country Motion’ motion.”
In the 1970’s, the Union was banned due to its political affiliations, only to be reinstated in the 1990s.
As one of the founding members of the South African National Debating Council, the UCT Union participated in the 1st South African National Debating Championships in 1996, which was hosted by Stellenbosch University.
The Union went on to host the 2nd South African National Debating Championships in 1997, where the second language competition was introduced for the first time. UCT won the bid to host the South African National Debating Championhips again in 2001, the 6th Championship in South Africa. This event saw a record number of participants (over 240!), and it was the first time that university debating was held in the Houses of Parliament in Cape Town (complete with Satellite Broadcast on DStv). Here, too, the first public speaking competition was introduced. The Union also hosted the 9th Championships in 2004.
UCT Debating has represented the University at numerous World Universities Debating Championships, including those in Stellenbosch (1997), Athens (1998), Sydney (2000), Glasgow (2001), Stellenbosch (2003), Singapore (2004), Thailand (2008), Manila (2012) and Berlin (2013).
The Union has been actively involved in the National Schools Debating Programme since 1999, when it hosted the Western Cape Provincial Schools Debating Championships. Now, the Union is involved in National, Provincial and Township School Debating as part of its social outreach programs.
Competitive debating is the key focus of the Union – we have an interest in anything that promotes better speaking and better arguments (but still is loads of fun).
All information on this page was obtained from an earlier version of the UCT Website, as well as:
- History of South African College 1829 – 1918 Volume 1 and Volume 2, Professor W. Ritchie, T Maskew Miller, Cape Town, 1918
- University of Cape Town: The formative years 1918 -1943, Howard Phillips, UCT Press, 1993
- Jubilee Souvenir of the South African College Debating Society April 21st 1865 – April 21st 1915 (In Commemoration of its 50th Anniversary)
Which reside in the UCT library.