Scholarship of Engagement practices are so divergent across universities that this necessitates a dedicated focus – Vivienne Lawack

Published On: 26 October 2021|

Universities should not view community engagement as separate from teaching and learning and research but see all these as very closely interrelated. So said Dr Sizwe Mabizela, Vice-Chancellor of Rhodes University, speaking at Universities South Africa’s (USAf’s) recent conference on The Engaged University.

Professor Vivienne Lawack, Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic and law professor at the University of the Western Cape (UWC), concurred, describing community engagement as “the gel that keeps everything together”.

Mabizela and Lawack were participating in the third breakaway session of USAf’s Teaching and Learning Strategy Group (TLSG) at the conference, held virtually from 6 to 8 October. Mabizela is the chairperson of the strategy group, and Lawack was chairing the session on Community Engagement.

Responsive citizenship is critical

Dr Noluthando Toni, Director of Teaching Development at Nelson Mandela University, and a member of the strategy group, introduced the session.

She said she wanted to highlight the importance of engaging students “in ways that ignite critical thinking, ways that contribute to responsible citizenry, and ways that transcend disciplines’’.

As the upcoming panelists were going to be speaking on Harnessing community engagement to produce engaged, critical and democratic graduates, she said she wanted to pay attention to a different aspect of community engagement, namely responsible citizenship, something which living in the time of the CoViD-19 pandemic has reinforced.

“Being a responsible citizen covers many areas, and the university has a role to play in most, if not all, of these areas,” she said. She said a responsible citizen has legal, social as well as moral obligations. And responsible citizenship is about realising these obligations to take action to identify and meet community needs, she said.

She said gatherings such as this conference served “to reinvigorate and foster aspects of responsible citizenship”.

Being locally relevant and globally aware

The first panelist was Mr Siseko Kumalo (left), a PhD candidate at the University of Pretoria and philosophy lecturer at the University of Fort Hare (UFH), who said he was making his presentation “as a village fool who knows that he knows nothing”.

His paper was titled Pedagogic obligation in developing a decolonial and contextually responsive philosophical approach, which he intends to submit soon to the British Journal of Philosophy of Education.

The paper was the outcome of a third-year course he taught at UFH in the first semester this year, for which the students had to read two books: a collection he had edited, titled Decolonisation as Democratisation – Global Insights into the South African Experience (HSRC Press, 2021), and Decolonisation in Universities – The Politics of Knowledge, edited by Professor Jonathan Jansen (Wits University Press, 2019).

The intention of the course was “to think about the concept of a decolonial and contextual responsive philosophical approach, specifically in the context of the 21st century where our discipline, to a certain degree, is seen to be losing much of its gravitas,” he said.

He posed the question: “Through education, are we producing individuals who are concerned with the realities of their fellow citizens or are we as intellectuals disorienting our students by providing them with philosophical training that is irrelevant to their situation?” he asked.

At the same time, he did not want to disadvantage students by making them “parochial thinkers that are inadequately equipped to deal with the global questions and problems that face us contemporarily. So, while I’m saying we must use the discipline to respond to local problems, I’m also conscious of the fact that philosophy has global trajectories, and I do not wish to sidestep that,” said Kumalo.

Yet, he said, the country has what can be regarded as universities that are in South Africa, and not South African universities, and this necessitates their decolonisation.

Community engagement not fully embraced at all universities

The second speaker was Professor Raisuyah Bhagwan (left), from the Department of Community Health Studies at the Durban University of Technology (DUT).

She said the birth of democracy in South Africa had brought with it the opportunity for a more democratic higher education system that would refocus its purpose towards its public good. Yet a recent NRF (National Research Foundation) funded study, led by Prof Bhagwan, had found that for some universities “this community interaction has been piecemeal, not systemic, and reflects more individual academic interests.

“It seems to suggest that engagement has not been fully embraced across disciplinary homes and across all faculties in higher education institutions,” she said.

Bhagwan said this might be because some academics consider themselves to be “repositories of exclusive knowledge, and as such, have become increasingly isolated and disconnected from society”. And this leads to the type of research that advances theory but doesn’t address social problems (Benson, Harkavy, and Hartley 2005).

“It is not surprising then, that such academics view our community as spaces for fieldwork, as pockets of needs, laboratories for experimentation, or passive recipients of their expertise, instead of being seen as teaching, learning and research partners,” (Bringle and Hatcher 2002, 504)

Collaborative engagement is not “dismissive of expert knowledge, but rather engages with this expertise to find solutions to societal problems.” she said.

It does, however, recognise that in certain circumstances, the experts will be non-credentialed, non-academic collaborators who are community partners,” she said.

“Collaborative engagement within the university is part of an ecosystem of knowledge production, which addresses community problems with the purpose of advancing a more inclusive democracy,” she said.

The University of Mumbai and collaborative engagement

Bhagwan had visited the University of Mumbai in India to research its method of community engagement.

Social work students from the university, located in an urban context, “were immersed as part of both a service-learning and community-based participatory research initiative in a tribal area outside of Mumbai. This example exemplifies how engagement transcends the boundaries of the classroom, and beyond the traditional teacher-learner dichotomy,” she said.

Before they were immersed in the community, the students had classroom discussions on the tribal community’s cultural and political practices. This helped them understand the root causes of the community’s social problems, and so they could work collectively to plan interventions. The intervention was a success, as the students were able to formulate responses to poverty, substance abuse, gender inequalities and to empowering the tribals.

“What emerged through this encounter, for me, is that social work theory taught to students had little relevance during their engagement with the local tribes. It brought to the fore the importance of indigenous contextually-relevant knowledge to guide intervention with marginalised communities,” she said.

“The example from the University of Mumbai creates innovative ways for us as academics to work with community partners as co-learners in the process of change, and empower those who have been historically disadvantaged”, she said.

The Chair’s question to Kumalo

Professor Lawack asked Kumalo: “How would you go about making sure that your module takes your students’ realities into account, hearing their voices and connecting them with local communities? Can you give us a practical example of how you would do that?”

Kumalo’s response:
“Within the classroom space, there’s a translanguaging aspect. A lot of the philosophical concepts can be quite abstract. How do we translate that and find the necessary vocabulary such that we meet the students and their mother tongue?

“The second thing is to pose philosophical questions that concern the lived realities of our communities.

“In our project of decolonising the university and creating a South African university out of the university in South Africa, we attempt to develop African epistemological or philosophical questions, as opposed to using African epistemology in service of answering Western problems.”

The Chair’s question for Professor Bhagwan

Lawack’s question to Professor Bhagwan: “The Indian example is very interesting. Is it being replicated at your university? If not, is there a possibility of you taking that model into the university on a much broader basis?”

Professor Bhagwan’s response:“We’re trying to encourage students to become immersed in our rural areas and do their child and youth care work or social work-related interventions in those spaces, as opposed to community organisations in an urban area – having them immersed in rural spaces without academic supervisors where the community leaders can actually become supervisors of the students.

“It hasn’t been replicated broadly, but I’ve taken ideas from it. I have published a paper on it and I’m advocating for its consideration in social work education.”


Professor Lawack, read out the many comments and questions the session generated, proof that it had supported one of the aims of USAf’s conference, namely “to provide a space for reflection and vigorous, evidence-based, robust debate”.

Charis Corbishley, Academic Head at Cape Town College of Fashion Design (CTCFD), posted: “I appreciate the distinction between engagement at the community and “taking the community with us”. I have really appreciated this distinction during this session and the conference at large.”

Amanda Kinners, Senior Head of Programme: Law at The Independent Institute of Education, posted: “It is important for communities to own the solutions rather than having solutions imposed, which reinforces learnt helplessness. This approach goes beyond mere buy-in but empowers for future self-help and autonomy.”

Professor Emmanuel Mgqwashu, Deputy Dean of the Education Faculty at Rhodes University, posted that their community engagement-research-teaching nexus was exemplary. “Institutions could begin to learn from there,” he said.

Bibi Bouwman, Director: Sustainability and Community Impact at North-West University’s Institutional Office, posted that she did not see much interaction with universities’ support units for community engagement. She said the South African Higher Education Community Engagement (SAHECEF) had contributed a lot and she advised people to engage with its chairperson, Professor Desmond Lortan. She directed delegates to SAHECEF’s website,

Lawack responded that she thought community engagement units at universities were members of SAHECEF and thanked Bouwman for posting the link.

Question from a delegate

Someone called Colette posed the question: How do we bring the decolonisation of Basic Education and Higher Education together?

Kumalo’s response:
“First and foremost, to augment and strengthen the work that has been done in terms of indigenous language capacitation, such that our languages can perform and contribute to the scientific system in the country.

“The second thing is to align the two to see the basic education system as feeding into the broader scientific system of the country, and not as a disjointed standalone.

“And I think the moment that that alignment comes into being, the knowledge that we produce as intellectuals, as academics working as practitioners within the sector, begins to filter down to the extent that we can begin to streamline learners, before they become students, so they can take up certain disciplinary proclivities even before getting into the system. So, it’s really a matter of policy alignment.

“I do understand that with the DSI (Department of Science and Innovation) merger with the DHET (Department of Higher Education and Training), there are a number of policy convergences that are being deliberated on that front. But to marry basic education with higher education, and not to divide them, is going to facilitate the work that’s being done in higher education trickling down into basic education.”

The chair’s comments

Professor Lawack said there seemed to be a need for a follow-up on community engagement to showcase the approaches at different universities. She said perhaps the Teaching and Learning Strategy Group could take it further by considering how they see the scholarship of engagement, and what theories it could be premised on. It could also look at “the kinds of practices universities are doing to ensure that when we say ‘we make a difference’, there is some impact indeed”, she said, as well as what measurements should be used to assess this impact.

“We’ve basically just scratched the surface here. There are more conversations to be had,” she said, and suggested Professor Mabizela put this recommendation on USAf’s agenda.

Gillian Anstey is a contract writer for Universities South Africa.