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Community Engagement: a political tool?

Date Released: Mon, 13 May 2013 11:20 +0200

The purpose politics of Community Engagement was intensely debated last Wednesday in the panel discussion ‘Changing Contexts: RU’s response to social justice needs’. The panel consisted of a wide variety of Rhodes University-based academics and activists.

Richard Pithouse, a lecturer in the Politics and International Studies department, gave a heated account of the political machinations surrounding community service. He called on community service workers and community service organisations to cede power to those they seek to help rather than approaching the service from a "colonialist, philanthropic perspective".

Panelist Dr Kenneth Mlungisi Ngcoza wanted the creation of an equal opportunity playing field in community engagement. “The best view of Rhodes is from the township,” said Ngcoza, suggesting that Rhodes is seen as the promised land that can never be attained. He spoke in favour of transformation that created equal opportunities for all Grahamstown residents regardless of class background.

Women’s Academic Solidarity Association co-chair Mathe Maema supported this view stating that Community Engagement had to be about deconstructing barriers of what she termed, “otherisation”.

The opportunity for activism at Rhodes was addressed by Corinne Knowles, a lecturer in the Extended Studies programme, who stated that activism does not have to be large civil movement. Knowles stated that activism can be an individual’s refusal to participate or condone a set of actions by a larger majority and this can set the chain in motion for greater social change and justice.

Rhodes University was criticized as taking an elite perspective on Community Engagement and Pithouse’s assertion that “the university should think about fixing itself before it fixes anyone else” spoke to the heart of his grievance with community service as a means of oppression by withholding power.

He stated that community engagement organisations seek to maintain superiority by making processes unavailable to the grass-roots organizations so as to maintain control over community service projects and systems.

Caption: The panel for the Community Engagement discussion.

Picture by: Charles Mackenzie

By Chelsea Haith

Source: OppidanPress.com

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