News & Media

CE projects: Servant leadership required

As the world observed International Day for the Eradication of Poverty on 17 October, Dr Genevieve James, Deputy Director of the Community Engagement and Outreach Division at Unisa, believes that the science produced by higher education must meet society’s need for shared economic growth. “For social cohesion and national stability, we need a just economic system. Our communities must be able to effectively participate in the life of the economy and not feel alienated or pushed out of the economy,” she said.

Dr Genevieve James (Deputy Director: Community Engagement and Outreach Division, Unisa)

James is concerned about the global rise of inequality and that many government leaders across the world are bloated with arrogance and intoxicated with power and greed. She says they view their leadership positions as opportunities to access wealth for personal benefit and for the enrichment of their friends and associates. She expressed that such governments on the African continent are not for the people, and, as such, they are no better than the colonial empires whose primary economic motivation was surplus acquisition at the expense of the people.

“We are at critical crossroads; the path we choose today will determine our future. We must reject the path of self-indulgence and indifference across all spheres of society. We must actively choose the path of economic justice. When you impoverish the majority of the nation you will witness increasing protests and social unrest, the well-being and security of the nation would be at stake. We need to apply our minds and wills; and commit to the deep thinking, action, and reflection that is required across all disciplines for poverty alleviation,” says James.

Even before the Covid-19 pandemic, South Africa gained the dishonourable distinction as one of the most unequal societies in the world. According to James, when the pandemic struck, it deepened development lags and set back the progress that was made in alleviating poverty. She added that among others, it has set back the country’s ability to respond to the targets of the National Development Plan (NDP), Africa 2063, and the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

Dr Genevieve James, Rose Leriba, and Chevaan Peters from Unisa’s Community Engagement and Outreach Division in the community of Diepsloot, Johannesburg

Unisa’s efforts to eradicate poverty

For Unisa, the eradication of poverty is not cheap rhetoric. Through community engagement (CE) projects around and across its colleges, academics are actively engaged in efforts that highlight the gaps in society. Unisa academics enable high quality development knowledge to be freed from the ivory towers of higher education to flow in the direction of government, business, civil society, and rural and urban human settlements.

Through CE, the university’s academics cross boundaries to build just relationships, networks, and partnerships for mutual and reciprocal learning and development action. They create and mobilise knowledge for public good and enhance existing skills in key areas responsible for social and economic justice. CE project teams use their intellectual skills to provide knowledge that will inform policy making and address systemic and structural dysfunction that keeps the poor locked in chronic poverty. The teams strengthen the agency of stakeholders and participating communities and learn from communities about the wide-reaching implications of poverty.

Among many issues that deepen poverty and a lack of access, the projects are concerned with food security, nutrition, and environmental sustainability, access to health care, language translation, street homelessness, learning in correctional services, diversity and gender violence. They address dispute resolution, human rights, crime reduction, and the training of law enforcement and safety and security personnel. Projects supported school principals, teachers, and learners during the lockdown to ensure that quality teaching and learning continued, using new communication methods and technologies.

Furthermore, James says the CE social innovations involve the use of information and communications technologies (ICTs) and education technologies to address the digital and technology skills gaps in society. Among others, the projects are active in building the capacity of municipalities, improving the skills of entrepreneurs, providing financial and tax literacy, and boosting learner performance and teacher competencies in Science, Maths and Accounting.

“We need to remember that higher education was founded on a civic mission. We work with our networks to lift people and communities from dystopian conditions to ideal conditions. When we lose sight of the very purpose of higher education, then we will fail to have an impact on our world. We have the incomparable role in society to provide critical knowledge and skills that will lead to positive change and economic justice,” emphasised James.

James concluded by urging institutions of higher learning to understand the indispensable role of academia in describing and addressing the chronic lack of access in all areas that lead to obstinate poverty and social erosion. Through CE efforts, academics need to act as the conscience and consciousness of society.

*By Nancy Legodi, Acting Journalist, Department of Institutional Advancement

Publish date: 2020/10/26