File photo: African News Agency (ANA)

Cape Town – The protesters who disrupted the World University Debate Championships (WUDC) on its final day at UCT have cited racism from the organising committee as the reason for their action.

The competition was held from December 27 to January 3, with teams from universities from across the world participating.

Athinangamso Kopo, a Wits and Oxford University alumni, said she was at the event as a spectator and also took part in the protest.

She said over the years racism has been evident in the competition, but this year they decided to take a stand.

“One of the judges, from Namibia, was late for a round after almost being hit by a car and he was rudely chastised in front of everyone, by an Irish member.

"She called him useless in a message that was shared on social media, saying that the competition would be able to continue without him.”

Kopo said that after it was widely shared more people reported incidents of racism and that was part of the spark that ignited the protest.

“While negotiations were being held with the protesters and the organisers, a secret final was being held at an undisclosed location.

“We felt that this was in bad faith, and shows they were not taking the concerns of the protesters and supporters seriously.”

UCT spokesperson Pat Lucas said the issues that led to the protest were complex and involved different concerns.

“It is true that an international delegate circulated an offensive social media message regarding one WUDC adjudicator.

"This message offended many delegates and staff of the competition, including the UCT students, who were involved with the logistics of the event.

"The international delegate apologised in private to the adjudicator for her message but refused a request by staff and delegates to make a public apology. She subsequently withdrew herself from the tournament.”

Lucas said the delegate made a private apology, but refused to make a public one, adding that public apologies were given at the closing ceremony by WUDC staff and it was accepted by protesters.

Lucas said UCT had five teams in the competition and the highest ranked UCT team took 11th place, making it as far as the quarter-finals.

“The protest was announced a few minutes before the final round. The adjudication core immediately moved that round to another venue, which meant the final round took place behind closed doors, rather than in public.

"This was not ideal, but it did allow the final round to take place. However, the gala dinner and prize-giving could not take place.”

The UCT Debating Union expressed concern at how the final day of the competition was run.

“Hosting the open final behind closed doors was abhorrent, and completely undermined the rally against the structural racism that exists and the sincerity of any apologies made.”

The union commended the students who protested against the organisers.

“You are responsible for actively challenging the WUDC Organising Committee, and the international debating community at large.

"Your courage and bravery will not be forgotten any time soon.

"An official conversation around structural racism and exclusion at WUDC is on the table now.

"This is something that has not been done before (or at the very least, has not been taken as seriously before).”