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Unisa units ignite enthusiasm for community engagement

On Wednesday 24 April 2024, history was made as Unisa hosted its inaugural Communities: From Conversation to Collaboration event at the Cape Town Campus in Parow. Held with the aim of shedding light on the impactful work carried out by various departments and units within the university, this event served as a platform for sharing achievements, fostering connections and igniting enthusiasm for community engagement initiatives.


Significant collaborations

Michelle Frauendorf, Acting Regional Director of the Western Cape Region, set the tone for the event with a warm welcome to all attendees. Her opening remarks emphasised the significance of collaboration and highlighted the importance of the work being done by the Law Clinic, the Institute for Social and Health Sciences (ISHS), and other community-focused projects. It was also an opportunity for staff members of the Law Clinic and the ISHS to introduce themselves to the region and talk about their personal contributions in their sections.


Law Clinic highlights

Founded on the principle of providing legal assistance to marginalised communities, the Law Clinic has a rich history of empowering individuals and promoting social justice. The Law Clinic in Cape Town forms part of four regional Law Clinics nationally. Within all the regions, the Law Clinic facilitates the training of LLB graduates who are training to become attorneys and it also deals with matters in the CCMA, regional and high courts, and all tribunals where clients need assistance with legal matters.

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Members of the Unisa Western Cape Law Clinic

One of the event's highlights was the recognition of the Western Cape MOOT Court winners, displaying the talent and dedication nurtured within Unisa's Law Clinic. The MOOT Court started in July 2023 and students were trained in research, argument and presentation. Once the training had been completed, the students then competed against each other. The Western Cape MOOT court team comprising of Lubabalo Fongoqa, Vuyolwethu Siyolise and Xolile Mgidi dominated the competition in Pretoria from start to finish and the culmination of their hard work and skills resulted in an overall win. The participants were elated with their win and attributed their success to the incredible support and training they received at the Western Cape Region Law Clinic. The students not only won, but won with a clean sweep and took home awards for the best memorials, heads of argument, best oralist and the overall win.

Special congratulations were extended to Keshia Marthinus and Leslin Marcus, two members of the Law Clinic who are on the cusp of becoming admitted attorneys after completing their board examinations. Their achievements exemplify the commitment to excellence and service that defines Unisa's approach to legal education and outreach.


ISHS an advocacy powerhouse

The ISHS, another pillar of community-focused endeavour at Unisa, was spotlighted during the event. With a diverse portfolio of projects aimed at addressing pressing social and health challenges, the ISHS has been at the forefront of research, advocacy and intervention.

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Members of the ISHS team

The ISHS covers three streams of work which focus on liberatory epistemologies, community action research as well as injuries and violence prevention in traffic and road safety. There are ISHS offices in both Johannesburg and Cape Town comprising of four professors, three doctors, seven PhD candidates, seven junior staff members, two master’s interns and five administrative staff members. Staff members introduced themselves and shared insights into the various projects they are actively involved in, highlighting the multidisciplinary approach and real-world impact of their work.

Their significant work within communities covers issues such as violence prevention and safety and peace promotion. The ISHS also runs a world-class internship programme which grows each year, and which is HBCS accredited. Various team members work collaboratively and bring a unique perspective to the research within their field of expertise ranging from African psychology, liberatory and decolonial psychology, injury mortality surveillance systems, public health, masculinity and gender relations and community healing. An exciting documentary is currently being produced which investigates fishing histories and the way in which people connect with the ocean and water bodies.

The ISHS has used all the work that has been completed to this point to develop a model of community engagement. The model is currently being evaluated and reviewed with specific focus on identifying community issues.

The department continues to foster and grow relationships with the communities they serve to fashion new solutions for the problems that people identify.


Southern Cape partnerships

Adele Blacker provided an overview of community engagement initiatives in the Southern Cape region, underscoring the importance of fostering partnerships with local municipalities, educational institutions and NGOs.

Blacker explained how community learning forms part of the Facilitation of Learning section through the establishment of the Community Learning Unit which primarily focuses on servicing students in rural and outlying areas of the Western Cape, Southern Cape, the Karoo and the West Coast. Unisa’s support services are taken to these students in an effort to assist with academic success by providing programmes such as academic literacies and myUnisa training sessions. The rationale behind the outreach initiatives is to provide the same level of support to students from outlying areas as those residing close to and within range of campuses.

The initiative then extended its services to the broader community through community engagement resulting in partnerships being formed with NGOs. This opened doors for sponsorship and the support of several projects.

As the Community Learning Unit expands its reach, the focus has now shifted to engaged scholarship. A notable highlight of the unit is the robotics programme which was offered to inmates at Pollsmoor prison. In preparation for engaged scholarship, the College of Human Sciences provides training on practices around community engagement. So, we are now able to open the doors for engaged scholarship for our students through the work-integrated learning (WIL) programme, and for students who are able to engage in co-curricular activities. It is also an opportunity for students to form part of internships offered at organisations the unit has established relationships with.

Some of the achievements of the unit include the hosting of the first George seminar which focused on entrepreneurship. This successful initiative eventually became part of the Global Entrepreneurship Week in George. Through collaborative efforts, projects aimed at enhancing community well-being and resilience have gained momentum, serving as beacons of hope and progress. The three main stakeholders which the Southern Cape is currently engaging in and collaborating with are the George Municipality, Suff Academy and the Unisa Science Engagement Centre. The Community Learning Unit has successfully achieved this through the sharing of resources, knowledge and expertise.


Addressing young boys’ challenges

Dr Shahieda Jansen presented Unisa's innovative School Belonging Project for Boys, recently launched at Southfield Primary School and Salt River High School. This transformative initiative seeks to address a range of challenges faced by young boys, including academic underachievement, aggression and school dropout rates. By providing targeted support and guidance, the project aims to create environments where boys feel valued, supported and empowered to succeed. The assumption on which the School Belonging Project is based is that there is a relationship between belonging and performance. The goal of the School Belonging Project is to increase boys’ sense of school belonging, which might increase academic performance.

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Members of the School Belonging Project

The idea of a school belonging project is rooted in the model of masculinised personal transformation which was developed during Jansen’s tenure at the University of the Western Cape between 2008 and 2016. The programme is in the implementation phase and was successfully launched at the two pilot schools during the latter part of April.

Working on the School Belonging Project are Dr Shahieda Jansen in her role as principal researcher, Nonhlanhla Masinga as project leader and John Abrahams as researcher. The School Belonging Project was registered as a Unisa community engagement project at the College of Human Sciences and received ethical clearance from Unisa’s ethics committee.

As part of the presentation, five of the facilitators joined Jansen on stage to review and share their life-changing experiences regarding the training they received.

Now that the project has been implemented in schools, what will follow is a period of data collection which forms part of the research cycle. A final reflection of the project in collaboration with the community will answer questions such as: What has the community learnt? What are the lessons to be learnt from the implementation of the School Belonging Project?

Jansen concluded her presentation by stating, "Indeed, this programme will continue in schools and there will be a rollout of the School Belonging Project within more community schools".


Looking ahead

As the event drew to a close, it was evident that the spirit of collaboration and commitment to community development resonated strongly among attendees. Despite running over time, the energy and enthusiasm remained palpable as participants lingered to discuss ideas, share experiences and chart the course for future endeavours.

In essence, Communities: From Conversation to Collaboration served as a testament to the university's unwavering dedication to making a positive difference in the lives of individuals and communities. By harnessing the power of collaboration, innovation and collective action, Unisa continues to be a beacon of hope and transformation in a rapidly changing world.  

* By Lee-Anne Davids, Communication Officer, Unisa Western Cape

Publish date: 2024/05/17

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