OCTOBER 30, 2014
The South African Model United Nations (SAMUN) is a dynamic Education Africa project based on the principles and format of a UN General Assembly debate which focuses on global issues, international relations and human rights issues. With over 500 schools participating nation-wide in the provincial conferences, our school was yet again one of them. Representing the tiny gulf emirate Qatar, Refiloe Matsoso and I (Ofentse Monnaruri; both in grade 11), along with two other girls from our partner school St Bernard’s, took charge of the conference auditorium and brought home the provincial title.
Amazing and humbling as the victory was, the hard work began and reached its peak as we prepared for the national competition, which took place in the mother city – Cape Town! From 2 to 5 October we had 8-hour training sessions with a mentor who helped with our preparation as Ugandan delegates. October 16th was fast approaching as our heads were swollen with economics, politics, human rights, foreign policy and the works. We eagerly awaited our opportunity to begin shaping the world around us.
Cape Town International Airport welcomed us with a group of enthusiastic debaters already, well, debating! We all took a bus ride to Protea Breakwater Lodge, right next to V & A Waterfront and near the foot of Table Mountain. There was no time for team Free State to settle in as our interviews would be held immediately after lunch. With nerves raging , we each individually walked into the interview room and faced a pretty intimidating panel of adjudicators that dished out political, humanitarian and foreign policy questions. With all fairness, they turned out to be very friendly people! Elvis Moshodi even advised Fifi (Refiloe) that, if all else fails, she can always work for an airline with her ‘flight attendant voice’. We hoped we would have time to rest after our interviews. Little did we know that sleep would be a very scarce commodity during nationals.
We spent what felt like the entire evening with our mentor preparing further for our first debate’s topic: Outweighing the Economic benefits VS the Environmental Impact of Hydraulic Fracturing. Friday came and so did our visit to parliament! Unfortunately, photos were prohibited and all we have are the faint memories of the place where decisions affecting our nation are made. We even caught a glimpse of the parliamentary sitting of NEDLAC. We could not delay further. We put on our traditional attire and headscarves. The time had come to make the voices of our respective countries heard. Refiloe kick-started our team’s policy by presenting our opening statement. Intimidation and nerves aside, we made our mark as Uganda and gave a good first impression.
After the supper buffet, we fell into the same pattern: prepare for what felt like the whole night. We had no excursions planned for Saturday morning, but of course we prepared some more! State Sanctioned Homophobia: Universal Human Rights VS State Sovereignty – this was set to be the most heated debate. We held our own, justifying Uganda’s contentious stance on the issue. At this point in time, friendships were not fully formed. This debate allowed us to draw closer to delegates who shared the same struggle of representing a country with such strong, controversial views. We ended off the day’s proceedings with a visit to Signal Hill. What an amazing experience it was to watch from a hilltop as the sun began set.
With the pressure having been defused, everyone was at ease and friendships were catalyzed. We looked forward to a good night’s rest, but how wrong we were to expect this. We were told to gather for a briefing session after supper. Our conference coordinator received “an urgent phone call” from “UN Secretary General Ban-Ki Moon” wherein he was told that an emergency General Assembly sitting had to be called. You can imagine the shock on our fatigued faces. The impromptu topic was the Ebola Outbreak. This was no ordinary conference. Four different sessions were held simultaneously with one delegate from each nation/province going in individually. We each had to handle all speaker roles: opening statements, two formal caucuses and a closing statement. After the shock disappeared, we actually enjoyed ourselves. This was a true test of our understanding of our respective countries and current awareness.
Sunday came swiftly as we anticipated our overnight visit to Robben Island! But first: mall time. We had a good hour and a half walkabout through V and A Waterfront and had some shopping done, of course. After lunch at the hotel, we walked to Gateway and were briefed by the Robben Island staff in an auditorium. We were excited! What a grave mistake we made to expect a fancy trip to the island, a tour in a comfy bus and star accommodation and meals. The staff confiscated our phones, wallets, jewellery, anything remotely electronic and even our LIP BALMS. What madness! We arrived by ferry to the island and almost immediately our luggage was taken away and we were now political prisoners. Our “Baas” gave us our new identities; I was prisoner 100/80. We were then paired up, lined up and tied up. Yes, tied up! Each pair was tied with rope by the ankles and wrists. From then, a walk around nearly the ENTIRE ISLAND awaited us.
What seemed like a joke at first became serious as some of us experienced rope burn. I was part of the unfortunate few. We walked and walked on tar, on broken seashells and through bushes and shrubs, yelling “Amandla! Awethu!” and constantly being told to move to the back of the line if a single sound was heard to come from you or your partner. I must say, one thing we learnt from this was how to work together even with people you’ve known for four days. We thought this would be it and the five-star treatment would start. Yet again, we were sorely mistaken. ‘Baas’ escorted us to and locked us in a communal cell. He came back in few times to pick prisoners for solitary confinement. I cannot delete from my mind the expressions on their faces when they returned. Supper time came and were fed according to race. Those classified as inferior had the following: a scoop of pap (it was more like porridge), beef stew (two blocks of bland beef and ‘sauce’) and cabbage soup (warm water with cabbage slivers, onions and a piece of carrot). All of this occupied only a quarter of a plate. The superior races received the above but in abundance, and also huge chunks of buttered bread.
Thankfully, we all remembered that it was 2014 and some of our ‘superior’ friends sneaked bread to our table. Refiloe and I were, however, smart enough to sneak in cupcakes that we had bought earlier at the mall. We slept in an old section of the prison which had been converted into a hostel.
We started Monday morning with a few light-hearted games and then headed onto a knowledge scavenger hunt. During this we learnt about the history of Robben Island, from before it became a prison for political activists to the time it was declared a National and World Heritage Site. We learnt more about the likes of Robert Sobukwe and Nelson Mandela than we had from textbooks through the knowledge hunt and through a talk the previous night and a guided tour by a former prisoner.
Monday was prize-giving day. We all dressed in our cultural or business attire and walked over to a hall where the luncheon would be held. The deputy minister of the Department of Education was our esteemed guest-speaker and all-round friendly man. Gauteng province (Nigeria) took the title of first place, representing the first four members of the SA team. The other eight members were announced, and I was one of them. I was at a loss for words, sad that our team had not won, but also overwhelmingly excited that I would be going to New York. Everyone was thrilled for the Gauteng team and for their teammates who had made it. We celebrated with a movie night later that evening back at the hotel. Only on Tuesday morning when all the other teams left for the airport did we realise what amazing friendships we had developed. We met such amazing people, people we would not normally think to befriend.
SAMUN has taught us so much about the world and ourselves; it has taught us to open our eyes and minds to issues that are faced globally. It has forced us to leave our own little world and realise the potential we have to shape the international community. It has also opened our hearts and minds to people we would not normally associate with. This entire experience (including being treated as a prisoner for 24 hours and being fed like one) is one for the books. We will never forget it, but always cherish and draw from it. I look forward for what is about to come with my fellow SA teammates. We will hit New York by storm.
On behalf of the entire team, I would like to thank Mrs. I van der Berg (SMS), Ms. L du Toit (SMS), Mr. Pitso (St Bernard’s) and our mentor Hlehle (UCT) for their continued assistance and support. It is immensely appreciated. Thank you to the SAMUN organisers from Education Africa for the amazing opportunity. This experience will last us a lifetime.