28 May 2024 | Story Lunga Luthuli and Precious Shamase | Photo Supplied
Student Elections Debates 2024
Themba Hlasho, Executive Director: Student Affairs and Prof Prince Ngobeni, Qwaqwa Campus Principal were part of the debate series.

With South Africans going to the polls on 29 May 2024 for the seventh general elections since 1994, the University of the Free State (UFS) successfully hosted its first Institutional Elections Debate Series across its three campuses. The debates, organised by the Institutional Student Governance Office (ISGO), aimed to stimulate political engagement and intellectual discourse among students.

The debates took place on the three campuses and at different levels.  The debates were very successful; students were enthusiastic and well prepared to field critical questions to panellists.  The level of intellectual engagement was high and the facilitator, Ace Moloi – with his fine facilitation skills – helped to take the debates to higher levels.

Motlogelwa Moema, Head of the Student Governance Office, emphasised the alignment of the debates with the UFS’ commitment to societal progress and intellectual enquiry. "As an institution of higher learning, the UFS is committed to producing graduates who can function at various levels of society, contributing meaningfully to societal and intellectual enquiry. Platforms such as the debate series are important in stimulating political as well as electoral involvement while producing students who are leaders," Moema stated.

Student engagement in the electoral process was a key focus of the debates, with discussions highlighting the importance of translating campus political activity into national civic duty. Moema noted, "By bringing representatives from various political parties to all three campuses of the university, we ensured that students not only understood the importance of their votes, but also that they were able to align their values with those of the parties campaigning for their votes."

Informed voters: The debate allowed students to hear directly from the candidates about their platforms and stances on important issues. This can help students make informed decisions when they cast their votes.

Increased engagement: By hosting the debate, the Student Governance Office is encouraging student participation in the national elections. This led to a more vibrant and engaged student body.

Key themes of the debates included student funding, health care, governance, accountability, and economic policy. "The most topical theme across all three campuses was student funding. Additionally, students demonstrated great interest in the National Health Insurance, governance, and economic policies," Moema said, illustrating the depth and breadth of the discussions.

Reflecting on the role of universities in fostering political awareness, Moema acknowledged a generational disengagement from political activism. However, he stressed the importance of universities in cultivating a culture of debate and free thinking. "The recent debate series marked the beginning of the ISGO’s commitment to reviving dialogue across the university," he added.

Moema also highlighted the importance of universities in promoting critical enquiry and fact-checking, particularly during election periods. "Universities have a crucial role in creating platforms for fact-checking, critical enquiry, and clarification," he remarked.

Looking ahead, Moema hopes that the debate series will have a lasting impact on students’ democratic participation. "In the short term, the most ideal impact of the debate series should be a great turnout on election day. In the medium term, we hope to see the same energy during CSRC elections on all three campuses," he said.

The debate series was deemed a success, with significant improvements in turnout and the quality of engagement. "Our students showed a great level of tolerance for divergent views and respect for one another. The audience asked pertinent questions, showing remarkable understanding of societal dynamics, governance, social justice, and leadership values," Moema concluded.

The debates were moderated by Ace Moloi, a former student leader and award-winning journalist, whose experience and understanding of the university’s values greatly contributed to the event’s success.

The UFS is committed to developing well-rounded graduates who can think critically and contribute meaningfully to society. Looking ahead, the UFS hopes to see a high voter turnout on 29 May and continued student involvement in future elections. The debates' focus on critical thinking and informed participation aligns with Vision 130's objective of developing well-rounded graduates who can contribute meaningfully to society.

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