The debater


I sat on the stone bench eating my packed lunch, near where Benny Kaplinski used to recite Winston Churchill’s speeches – complete with grainy tones and the accompanying hum of the recording – and cast my mind back to the time when the Virginia creeper came into leaf.  They used to say that if you hadn’t started swotting for finals by the time this happened, then it was too late.  Had the cladding on the buildings always sprouted greenery as early as the first day of October?  Or was my memory playing tricks on me?

Other changes were more obvious.  The colour of the student cohort was more in step with the pattern of the general community.  Removal of cars from the central section of University Avenue had transformed this area into a pedestrian friendly environment, a marked improvement on the car-dominated thoroughfare that it was 35 years before.   Apart from a few people gathered at Julius Malema’s Economic Freedom Fighters’ stand, this creature of the new South Africa didn’t rate a second glance.  Unlike those of us who grew up with apartheid, the country’s Born Free generation[i] is oblivious to colour.

Earlier that day, I’d lugged several boxes of microfilm from the Kaplan Centre – which had no reader – to Special Collections in the Jagger Library – which did.  ‘No bags’, she’d said.  I opened up my backpack to show the ground floor check-in lady that I was on legitimate business.  She was having none of it.  I pulled out my phone and called Clive Kirkwood, the archivist in charge.  A few minutes later I was upstairs in the reading room.

Some months earlier I’d found three manuscripts in UCT’s Special Collections and Archives Section.  One was an archive of the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation.  The other two were collections of the South African College: a scrapbook and notes from a Students Debating Society in 1896.  By the time I requested these of Clive, with whom I’d been corresponding from Sydney, I’d added to the list several volumes of the Cape Times and The Argus.  I was still hoping that my ancestors’ voyage to South Africa would show up in shipping movements recorded in these dailies.  Among others.

As I looked around what was once the main library’s entry vestibule with its soaring ceilings, majestic columns and delicate balconies, two things came to mind: how beautiful the 1930’s interior – now restored to its original condition and with period furniture to match – looked without the intrusion of unsympathetic walkways and steel supports.  The other was that anyone with acrophobia would have a hard time painting those ceilings.

At the reference desk were 56 boxes of microfilm; these were in addition to the several reels of the Jewish Chronicle and Zionist Record I’d brought from the Kaplan Centre.  I didn’t need Clive’s pained look to tell me that I wouldn’t get through a half of it.

I loaded an 1881 edition of the Cape Times into the only working microfilm reader.  And then another.  And another.  I paused only to reset the machine which, every 30 or so turns, gave out a grunt and faded to a blur.  After cranking through six months’ worth of tiny print, I sensed that I wasn’t going to find what I was looking for.  The Jewish Chronicle and Zionist Record proved as unyielding.

I moved to one of the solid timber desks and laid out the Cape Town Hebrew Congregation Archive.  Buried in the minutes of meetings and various other administrative minutiae was a birth date for John Albert Edelman, 30 December 1882. With nothing of interest in the South African College scrapbook I turned my attention to the Students Debating Society collection.

The SAC Student Debating Society was formed on 21 April 1865 with early meetings supervised by the janitor.  Topics included the executions of Charles 1 and Mary Queen of Scots, and whether the pen was mightier than the sword.  Meetings were held on Friday evenings, later transferring to Saturday mornings to accommodate outside students.  By the first session of 1896, they were held at 8 pm on Thursday evenings in the SAC Hall.

The Society’s motto, Fare Quae Sentias, encouraged students to speak freely.  This may have been a contributing factor in the Society’s banning during 1882 ‘owing to some disorder connected from its meetings.’  The janitor at that time was described as ‘a bit of a martinet,’ who ‘occasionally let his temper run away with his discretion’; on one occasion he locked the Society out of the hall and refused to light the lamps because he felt that he hadn’t been paid enough.

In the 1890’s women were allowed to join the Society and in 1896 the first inter-collegiate debates were held and medals given out.  Heckling time was also introduced around then and, according to the source from which this history [ii] is drawn, ‘hat nights were apparently very popular.’

On the front cover of the 1896 collection was written:

Gift of Lt Col Rice, 1967.
Illuminated address to E W Rice from the Students’ Debating Society, [South African College]. Oct 1896.
Syllabus of the Students’ Debating Society, 1st session, 1896.
Group photograph of the Students’ Debating Society, 1896.

I passed over the address to EW Rice and went to the syllabus for the first session of 1896.  The new year had thrown up plenty of controversy.  The raid on the South African Republic led by British colonial statesman, Leander Starr Jameson, had come to an ignominious end on 2 January.  Four days later Rhodes, who had played a leading part in the raid, resigned as Prime Minister of the Cape Colony.  If that wasn’t enough there was always the dismal state of South African cricket; on 14 February the home team were all out for 30 in the first game against England in Port Elizabeth, the lowest score in test match history.  Whatever topics were listed for this session, as my eye came to rest on the name of the opposer on 12 March 1896, I wondered if the adversarial nature of debating was what had sparked Harry’s interest in the law.IMG_8757


A few pages on was the group photograph of that year.IMG_8758

I ruled out the 10 women and looked for anyone who was small, pale-eyed and around 20 years old.  The eye colour was a punt – Dad had green eyes – but the rest I knew to be true.  I took a photo, blew it up on my camera and scanned the features of the remaining candidates.  I was left with the man standing behind a hatless woman.IMG_8759

If he was there, this could have been Harry.

A few weeks ago I had another look at the address to EW Rice.IMG_8754

It was tempting to associate this EW Rice with the one of General Electric fame.  The outgoing president of the SAC Debating Society was lauded for innovation, a progressive approach and business acumen, attributes shared by the American electrical pioneer.  But could the man who helped transform GE into an international brand have also presided over a debating society in Cape Town?  I have found no African connections for him in 1896 or at all during his lifetime.  It seems that the President of the SAC Debating Society was someone else.  As the short man in the back row of the group photograph may also have been.


[i]               Born since the country’s first fully democratic elections in 1994, they have grown up without apartheid and the struggles of South Africa’s older generation.  They account for almost half of current population.


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