By Janine Erasmus
Final year law student Zola Valashiya is a man with a vision – and that is to get South Africans not just talking to, but communicating with each other. He feels that this is one of the tools that will help us to tackle a particularly prevalent scourge in our society – corruption.
Communication is one of the big challenges facing us at the moment, he says: "Engagement in our society has traditionally been adversarial, largely because we never went through a transition period of learning how to really communicate. It's the factor missing from our society, youth and leadership."
Lack of communication is also one of the reasons that corruption is allowed to prevail. Keeping quiet about corruption when one is aware it is happening, allows perpetrators to continue their wrongdoings. As one of the teams taking part in the inaugural Model Youth South Africa (MYSA) challenge put it, silence is consent. The challenge was co-organised earlier in 2014 by Corruption Watch and Valashiya’s Debate Afrika.
"We want to talk about corruption and open it up – it helps to get it out there, but if we don't speak to each other it will carry on," says Valashiya.
Learning the value of communication
Valashiya and his twin brother, now 25, grew up on the East Rand in Gauteng, but the family later moved to a suburb a bit closer to Johannesburg, where the boys spent the first few years of high school at an English school. For the remainder of high school, they were at a boarding school in Limpopo.
Attending an English school, he says, was "when I began to appreciate the value of language and communication". After passing matric, he went to read law at the University of the Free State (UFS). It was here that he took his fascination with communication to another level, by joining the debating team.
"I had debated in high school, and it's a wonderful tool," he says. "With it you learn to communicate, engage, analyse, and rationalise. Your critical thinking skills develop." But it didn't take much deep thinking for him to understand that "a big reason we can't communicate in our society is because of language".
With this in mind, Valashiya pledged to bridge the gap between speakers of different languages in South Africa. He and fellow debating enthusiast Monyane "Trey" Tekateka established Debate Afrika, an informal organisation of students, young professionals and pupils with a passion for debate and public speaking. The organisation is active across most of the country, and works with pupils, students and teachers on using debate as a tool for education and literacy, as well as youth leadership and development.
"We sought the best debaters in the world to come and train not one school, not some schools, but as many schools as possible," he said at the MYSA debate challenge final in April.
For him, debate is a valuable platform for constructive communication; and it doesn't matter what your accent is, as long as you can grasp a concept, think deeply about it, and argue the point effectively. "Skills acquired through debating are critical for future success – such as reasoning, analytical and oratory skills, and leadership skills, as well as the boost to self-confidence."
Those skills are often lacking in underprivileged schools, he says. One of his focus areas is working with pupils from such schools to give them the same skills grounding that pupils at wealthier schools get, as well as equip them to be able to grasp the same opportunities.
Valashiya has those skills to pass on – he was the UFS Debate Society president in 2011 and 2013, and the World Universities Debate Council secretary-general in 2012. In the same year, with Sibusiso Tshabalala, he won the Google Zeitgeist Young Minds award for the Afrika Kusoma Literacy Initiative, a project that established reading clubs to boost literacy and encourage critical thinking in disadvantaged communities. He's a global public policy debate finalist for 2014, and is one of 43 participants from 20 countries currently attending the final event in Brussels.
Making a difference
Valashiya was drawn to law for a number of reasons. "I've always been interested in creative, artistic, performing roles, and when I was small I'd watch legal movies and imagine that the courtroom was a theatre with people playing different roles."
Later, he realised that law studies imparted other skills, such as public speaking, researching, and discipline in writing and reading. "There’s also an element of psychology."
He realised that he could make a difference in society, within and outside the profession. "I haven't yet decided on a specialty, but by the end of my studies I will know my objective. I want to focus not only on public policy and legislation, but also on training students, leaders etc. in proper engagement and communication."
Highly supportive of initiatives such as Corruption Watch, Valashiya says: "We're still in the phase where we're defining what corruption is. Once we have a better idea we will know how to proceed. But we have a good foundation, with the Constitution, Corruption Watch, and other initiatives."
Factors such as traditions and culture make the legal environment around corruption a grey area, he points out. "For instance, it's traditional for a chief to reward people who help him, but that can be seen as favouritism and nepotism." It's a matter of perspective, he says, and when South Africans agree on what may and may not be done, then we will move forward.