VUT visits Rhodes University for community engagement best practices

By: Qhawekazi Memani – 14 September 2023

Recently, the Community Engagement Department at the Vaal University of Technology (VUT) went on a benchmarking mission at Rhodes University, in Makhanda, Eastern Cape.

The purpose of this visit was to glean best practices from their peers, the Community Engagement Division at Rhodes University (RUCE), aligning with VUT’s recently revised institutional strategic direction set to extend beyond 2030. Leading the VUT delegation, was Mr Joseph Radebe, who is currently serving as the Acting Director for the Department, alongside Ms Nthabiseng Mahlangu and Ms Thandi Macamo, who hold roles as CE Practitioner and Coordinator, respectively.

Additionally, the delegation included representatives from two academic faculties: the Faculty of Management Sciences and the Faculty of Applied and Computer Sciences. These included Prof Nobukhosi Dlodlo, Head of the Department of Marketing, Retail Business & Sport Management; Prof Fanyana Mthunzi, Head of the Information, Communication, and Bio-Technology. (ICBT) Unit at the VUT Southern Gauteng Science Park; Dr Nolutho Mkhumbeni, the acting Head of the Health Sciences department, as well as Mr. Andrew Brown and Miss Tshegofatso Malatsi, lecturers in the Information and Communication Technology (ICT) and Physics departments, respectively.

Mr. Radebe shared his key takeaways from this trip, highlighting RU’s distinction as a leading model for driving community engagement across South African universities. The benchmarking exercise underscored the importance of rooted community engagement guided by a specific ethos and theoretical model, aiming for transformative change with a meaningful social impact. “At RUCE, the community engagement framework comprises engaged teaching and learning, engaged research, engaged citizenry, as well as social innovation, collectively forming the global pillars of an effective community engagement agenda. These elements should be integrated into VUT in various capacities, with a deliberate focus on engaging local communities in their diverse forms,” Radebe said.

Furthermore, he emphasized that the approach at RUCE embraces principles of epistemic justice, respecting various forms of knowledge championed by local communities, including indigenous and traditional knowledge, as well as the lived experiences of our communities. “The concept of knowledge democracy is nurtured through robust transformative and cross-disciplinary research, an endeavour to be further explored within VUT’s academic faculties.”

Additionally, the faculties aim to initiate discussions on how to incorporate service learning both at the policy level and within the academic faculties. Encouraging the participation of the student community in volunteer efforts through engaged citizenry was highlighted as a commendable practice, while service learning seen as a vital foundation for intellectual, local, and civic growth, aims to prepare students for a purposeful and active life.

Another important takeaway is that, presently, community engagement at RU is categorized as both support and more of an academic function, with a deliberate initiative underway to establish it as an evolving discipline integrated with other academic fields.

In conclusion, “the visit to RUCE proved to be an invaluable learning experience for VUT. The insights gained from this exercise have not only expanded our understanding of effective community engagement practices but have also inspired a renewed commitment to fostering positive change within our own academic community and beyond,” said Mr. Radebe.