Model UN

samun-300x294Background information

Model UN debates were first held in South Africa in 1995 as part of the United Nations 50th anniversary. Close to the end of the project, the non-governmental organisation, Education Africa, was approached by the Ministry of Education to assist with the co-ordination of the debates. The 1995 group of debaters accompanied former President Nelson Mandela on his trip to New York for the United Nations’ 50th Anniversary celebrations.

In 1998, Education Africa revived the Model UN General Assembly Debating Competition for South African high schools in conjunction with the national UNESCO office and the Ministry of Education, among others. Based on the principles and format of a UN General Assembly debate, the Model UN provides an opportunity for improving relations between South African high school pupils from both advantaged and disadvantaged backgrounds, while teaching them about the UN, international relations and issues of global and national importance. The project has always been funded in its entirety by the South African corporate sector. Since early 2006, the cellular service provider, Cell C, has funded the project.

Model UN

MUN South Africa team at UN Headquarters in New York

The UNIC National Information Officer sat on a selection panel to choose four high school participants in the South African Institute of International Affairs Model UN Programme to participate in an international Model UN Conference in New York in May 2008. Two of the students won the Best Delegation Award and the other two students recieved an Honourable Mention in their respective committees. (Left to right) Abigail Keene, Banele Dlamini, Stuart Meyer (coordinator) , Zahraa Khotu and Dominic van Loggerenberg. The four South African students participated against 2500 students from around the world. An impressive and well-deserved accolade!

Nature of the Debating Competition

Model UN students, University of Pretoria on 22 May 2013/ Photo: Eduardo Kapapelo

Model UN students, University of Pretoria on 22 May 2013/ Photo: Eduardo Kapapelo

The Model UN Competition primarily consists of four pupils (two from an advantaged school and two from a disadvantaged school) participating in debates as a team, based on a simulation of those held at the United Nations General Assembly.

To create an authentic sense of the General Assembly, each team is allocated a country to represent in the debates. Participants have to familiarise themselves with the political perspectives, socio-economic policies, history as well as cultural practices of the country they represent. Through extensive research and reading, they convincingly adopt their country’s stance on the issues that are put forward and debated.

The debates are an exercise in developing communication and general life skills, including the written preparation of arguments, oral presentations, negotiations and reaching of working compromises – skills that are essential for the “world of work” and for the understanding of international politics and South Africa’s place in the world. The debates focus on the difficulties in trying to put forward an argument, whilst being constrained by having to adhere to government policy versus personal opinion.

Twinning of Advantaged and Disadvantaged Schools

The General Assembly democratic processes form a vital part of the debating criteria and this commitment to democratic processes is carried through to the formation of teams. Each team of four pupils consists of a partnership of schools — two pupils from an advantaged school and two from a disadvantaged school. This combination promotes cross-cultural exchange and encourages collaboration and tolerance between the pupils. It also gives disadvantaged learners an opportunity to compete on an equal footing, as they have access to research resources through their partner school.

Education Africa is pleased to be able to report that this twinning of resourced and un-resourced schools has been taken one step further by some schools and not only restricted to the debates. Relationships between advantaged and disadvantaged schools have continued to grow, with schools sharing all sorts of other expertise and resources.

In 2006, 385 schools participated in the competition in all nine provinces of South Africa

Structure of the Debates

  • Pupils learn and have fun together researching the policies of the country they are representing in the debates.
  • The competition is run first at the provincial level, where each team member receives a certificate of participation. The 1st, 2nd and 3rd place team members in each province receive an additional certificate.
  • The winning teams are appointed a tutor to help them prepare for the national competition. The winning team from each province, including their teachers and tutors, are then flown to either Johannesburg or Cape Town to debate against the other provincial winners at a national level.
  • The winning team of the national competition, comprising 4 students, and one member from each of the other eight provincial winning teams, receive the tremendous prize of an overseas trip to attend an international debating competition in New York. Some of the debates take place in the United Nations headquarters building.
  • The Model United Nations of South Africa (MUNSA) organisation is responsible for the academic co-ordination of the competition, including the preparation of reading packs, presenting the workshops and adjudication of the provincial and national competitions.

UN Guide for Model UN Simulations

Below is the link to Online UN Guide for Model UN Simulations:

The competition is divided into the following segments:

  • Provincial training workshops (held over weekends in May)
  • Provincial competitions held in the Provincial Legislatures (held over weekends in August)
  • The National Competition in Johannesburg or Cape Town (held in mid-October)
  • The International High Schools Model United Nations Conference in New York. Over 2,000 delegates from all over the world participate in this debating competition. The opening and closing session takes place in the UN General Assembly in New York (held in March).

Role of UNIC Pretoria in the National Competition

The United Nations Information Centre in Pretoria plays an instrumental role in the National United Nations Debating Competition for South African High Schools, including:

  •  Selecting debating topics and the composition of participating countries at a provincial level
  • Editing the substantive topic information contained in the preparation packs that the students are given
  • Providing hands-on training during the provincial workshops where questions on the UN are fielded
  • Disseminating UN information packages, including posters and booklets, to all participating students
  • Coordinating a joint UN effort whereby staff members of several UN agencies are selected to adjudicate the debates in the nine provinces
  • Providing training sessions for first-time UN agency adjudicators
  • Selection of topics and country compositions for the national finals
  • Arranging for UN heads of agencies to chair the national finals
  • Assisting with the logistics for the national finals
  • Providing media outreach for the national finals
  • Convening ‘Best practice’ meetings in the aftermath of the competition
  • Accompanying the winning delegation of 12 to New York

Gauteng Model UN Debates

UNIC also assists with adjudicating the Model UN Debates for Gauteng province high schools, held in conjunction with the South African Institute of International Affairs (SAIIA) in Johannesburg and the Model United Nations at the University of the Witwatersrand.

Testimony of 2007 SAIIA Global Classrooms Model UN Winner
Model United Nations Debating, New York, May 2007 by Gareth Beck

To have had the opportunity to visit the United Nations was amazing, made even more so by having been able to debate there and experience first hand how international diplomacy works. That was truly beyond anything ‘amazing’ could do justice to and my sincere thanks and appreciation for giving it to me.

If you have ever had the privilege of going to New York, then I don’t need to explain to you what that city is like. Indeed, even if you’ve never been, you’ll have some idea at least. The hotel was, without doubt, fantastic! We were really spoilt staying at the Grand Hyatt. My favourite part of New York, along with 5th Avenue’s ‘Abercrombie & Fitch’ and the UN, was Bryant Park. Bryant Park sits behind the New York Public Library on 42nd Street, the same street as our hotel. To me, this rather small rectangular piece of lawn was a shard of heaven in high rise Manhattan: it was an oasis. New York has such energy: everyone running around doing their own thing, sometimes uncaringly and unaware. Bryant Park, however, was the place that every New Yorker seemed to pour into for their lunch hour to relax for a few minutes of rejuvenation, taking their shoes off and lying on the grass, chatting and laughing. In the chaotic paragraph that is New York, full of ubiquitous run-on lines and sparse commas, Bryant Park is the defiant and resilient little Full Stop where people pause, and somewhere that made my souls smile.

The thing that first struck us, and perhaps struck us the most, was how cosmopolitan new York was. We all joked about how none of the people we had seen working at JFK were white Americans. Yet despite the different nationalities, ethnic groups and religions there was unity: everyone was a New Yorker, and everyone was American. To them, this identity was arranged more around a common set of ideas, an ideological identity rather than a racial or historical one. I’ve always wondered why they never built the UN in somewhere like Switzerland or Finland or any other more peace-loving country. The reason: There are only a few cities on earth that seem to be such perfect representations of what the world could be like when different people interact. I remember looking at ground zero, and I truly understood why the attacks reverberated perhaps more than they could’ve if they had been somewhere else: in such a cosmopolitan and worldly city, the attacks weren’t just against traditional America; they seemed to be as much against the cosmopolitan world.

How interesting that world truly is. The different values, cultures and views that people have are what makes that worlds so interesting, but also so complex. The greatest thing I became aware of was not how vastly opinions could really vary. I met a Chinese delegate who, whilst wearing the exact same outfit as all his colleagues, told me how wonderful Shanghai was. He wasn’t impressed by New York – Shanghai was better, He was also equally as unimpressed by Paris which, despite having never been there, is only famous because it is ‘romantic’, but it could not possibly be more romantic than parts of his native China. At a breakfast put on by Merrill Lynch, one of the big-wigs came to talk to us. He spoke about the challenges of doing business at a global level and getting different people to work together. He stressed the difficulties experienced with China not being democratic. Not to be outdone, there was a huge outcry from the Chinese delegation who stood up to tell him that it was their duty to inform him that he was wrong, and that China is actually very democratic. This world is becoming more inter-dependant, but that doesn’t mean our views have changed. Our challenge is to get them to work together. That was the greatest stumbling block in our debate. People naturally find differences. Unfortunately that generally results in hostility. Our debate was on drug eradication and alternative development. We all wanted that, but thereafter, all the different countries attacked each other like well oiled machines over their differences. The entire thing came very close to a stand-off over funding and sovereignty, which when it was over a mutually beneficial outcome, shouldn’t have been a problem.

I did however find something contrary. The organisers, UNA-USA’s Global Classrooms, took us to two different schools to talk about South Africa. At both schools, the teachers were trying to highlight the differences between South Africans and Americans in an attempt to get the kids to realise that people are different and that should be respected. The pupils on the other hand, weren’t interested in that. They kept asking us what we do on our Saturday nights, what music we listen to, what movies we like and what school is like. They were trying to find something they could relate to, some common ground and some similarity. It was subtle but it made me smile that were realising that people thousands of kilometres away were not actually that different.

It has always irritated me, as it does other people, that no-one thinks the same way I do. It is, however, a vital life-lesson that everyone is, to their own minds, justified and right, and one has to accept that and work with it. It is a valuable opportunity to be enriched. We took a trip past the statue of Liberty which was, to my mind, rather like the Mona Lisa: incredibly over-rated and about half the size you thought it would be. As I sat staring in disappointment at this rather solemn green woman, three American ladies next to me gave out a great sigh, one of them saying, “Oh, Lady Liberty, God bless Her!” I found it rather amusing: it’s not like Americans (the white settlers at least) were ever not free, they just had a quibble with the government over taxes and decided to fight a war to set their own taxes and policy. Since then the war of independence has somehow made a metamorphosis of itself into a grand and noble struggle against oppression and the like, even revolution, which never really existed. That said, the woman on the ferry found an ideal to which she could subscribe entirely, and it made her the better for it. Although I may not agree entirely with her opinion, I can relate to it, because that is how I feel about the UN. My librarian at school told me that she thought the UN was a bit of a toothless old beast and a waste of time. That could be argued, but I feel otherwise. The speaker at the opening ceremony spoke about how we all have issues and insecurities. He’s right, we do, and that’s what has dragged us through more or less every war we’ve ever seen. It was out of the two worst wars that Humanity said “Enough!” We decided to set up an organisation that would be a platform for us, the people of the world, to discuss our issues and insecurities and find common ground from which to construct something better. That was the plan, but reality seems to side-track us. At the conference, the Israeli and Lebanese delegations would not greet each other, talk to each other, or sit on the same committee. As easy as it may be to say that that was wrong, we can’t forget that our country is not under continual attack. The UN is not a world government, it’s not a charity: it’s a meeting of nations where we solve our problems ourselves. The UN isn’t meant to solve the problems; it just facilitates us doing that. If the UN fails, then we have failed.

Our whole debate was unfortunately brought to a near standstill because people could just not reconcile themselves over rather simple issues.

Just like that woman by the Statue if Liberty, I could not help letting a passionate sense of inspiration and awe devour me as I stood before those buildings and gardens on First Avenue. In theory, at least, you own a part of those buildings, as does every other human alive. They are truly a testament to humanity and to what humanity can achieve. One can see it in the artwork, which rejects war and is dedicated to a better world. There is a statue of a man beating a sword into a plough, and a mosaic of people from many different religions all in prayer, which reads: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. It’s entitled ‘The Golden Rule’. Unfortunately, it’s a rule that isn’t always observed.

I am very proud of all our achievement at the debates. At ours, we got one of four honourable mentions and our resolution was passed with the more yes votes than any other resolution and with the least amount of no votes. It truly was incredible, and I would just like to thank everyone who was involved: SAIIA, UNA-USA and Global Classrooms, Merril Lynch, Stuart Meyer, Thomas Coggin, Tom Wheeler, Sarah Richmond, Lucía Rodriguez, Glenda Tessalona, Liza I. Rojas-Alford, Zamanlungwa Khumalo , Fumane Chacha, Ayanda Bandla, Matt long and Melvyn Lubega. Thanks especially to Heather Hart who chaperoned us and put up with us and our getting lost and being late. Thank you so much for something so wonderful to have been able to have experienced and for all the great memories.

Dag Hammarskjöld once said, “People shouldn’t think of the UN as some abstract Picasso, but rather as a drawing they can help make.” That may be idealistic, but every dream is. Unfortunately, in many ways the UN is still a dream, but it’s all there, half realised. To make it work, we need to get involved now. I will never forget this trip, or what it has done for my world view. I can’t help wanting to make something better. After all, as the UN says, “It’s your world.”

 University Model UN

In addition to high schools, Model UN debates take place at several universities throughout the country. UNIC is regularly asked to adjudicate university-level debates and provide information materials. In addition, university participants are frequent visitors to the UNIC Library, particularly from the University of the Witwatersrand and the University of Pretoria. In addition, UNIC convenes UN exhibitions, panel discussions and other similar events at universities throughout South Africa focusing on UN days and global issues.


Education Africa
Cell C
Model United Nations of South Africa
National Ministry of Education
United Nations Association of South Africa
South African Institute of International Affairs