Rhodes University: Bettering communities through community engagement

Community engagement should not be a one-way street but rather an exchange of knowledge from which all parties involved benefit. These are the sentiments of the South African Higher Education Community Engagement Forum (SAHECEF) Chairperson, Professor Darren Lortan. He was speaking on the second day of the Community Engagement Symposium hosted by Rhodes University the Durban University of Technology.

The symposium, which is being hosted both virtually and in person at the Amazwi South African Museum of Literature, explores the role of Community Engagement in the reimagining of Higher Education Institutions during and post the COVID-19 pandemic. Professor Lortan introduced the different funders and sponsors of the programme.

Multiple and diverse community engagement programmes and organisations were given the opportunity to present their programmes to the audience. Ubunye Foundation Director, Katy Pepper and Monitoring and Evaluation Senior Manager, Lumka Nkanyana spoke of how they continued their community engagement work in the rural communities of Ngqushwa and Makana during the severe national COVID-19 lockdowns. “As a programme that helps communities, it is important for us to listen to what the community actually wants. Once we are made aware of these wants, our role is to provide the means and strategies to obtain them and combat the challenges the community faces,” said Pepper.

Nkanyana said the reason their programme has been so successful in helping communities is that they appoint community leaders within the communities they assist. “In this way, we gain the trust and engagement of the community members; and we are always aware of the activities that occur in the community. This also makes the community aware that they are capable of leading and coming up with strategies to create better-living conditions for themselves,” she added.

Nkanyana and Pepper also spoke to the challenges they have faced with funders during the pandemic and how they have had to sometimes alter their programmes to secure funding. “We had to do a juggling act between sticking with our community engagement programmes and pleasing the funders. It came down to us taking what they offered and changing our programmes – else we risked losing their funding,” explained Pepper. The Ubunye Foundation representatives appealed to funders to invest in the actual needs of communities and not what they assume them to be.

The panellists of the keynote discussion were the Coordinator of the Nine Tenths Mentoring Programme, Anna Talbot, Research Group Coordinator at Rhodes University’s Community Engagement (RUCE) Division Claire McCann, GADRA Education representative, Nolubabalo Makhombe and the principal of Khutliso Daniels Secondary School, Radio Mcuba. The Nine Tenths Mentoring Programme provides mentorship to students at local schools in collaboration with Rhodes University. They are the 2021 Global Award winners of the MacJannet Prize which was established by the Talloires Network in collaboration with the MacJannet Foundation in order to recognise university-based community engagement initiatives.

The emphasis in the panellists’ discussion was put on the importance of establishing relationships in their programme. “Relationships need to be established with clear roles and responsibilities from all parties. This will help create mutual understandings of expectations and will result in the success of the purpose of the programme which is mentorship,” said Makhombe. When telling the audience about the programme, Talbot said the programme was never a stand-alone but rather a “hybrid of multiple pathways formed through collaborations”. According to Talbot, meaningful partnerships with local schools has been the reason why they have been able to attain their goals for the programme.

Mcuba said that the programme has led to tremendous improvements on the matric results at Khutliso Daniels Secondary School and that he cannot imagine leaving the programme. “The improvements made by the programme prove that it provides quality skills to the students. It is also through this programme that I have seen selfless leadership. It is not the first of its kind, but it is the most well-thought-out programme,” he said.

From programmes that focus on Early Childhood Development to the ones focused on bettering the livelihoods of local communities, the symposium provided a platform and recognition for the community engagement work which is mutually beneficial to both Higher Education Institutions and the development of their local community. The emphasis on relationships and collaboration was a reminder of how much a community can achieve when it works together.

Rhodes University