Community Engagement

The university as institution rests on three pillars: teaching, research and community engagement. Through-out the history of the institution and in its various contexts the meaning of these pillars as well as the relationship between them, have been theorised in a variety of ways. It should come as no surprise, then, that a substantial literature exists on such questions as What does community engagement mean? and How does it stand in relation to teaching and research?

In the department of Political and International Studies at Rhodes University, we take a broad view of what “community engagement” means premised on the following principles: 

1. We are sensitive to the past. In South Africa, Community Engagement may be a recently established core function of universities but, in a sense, this no more than formalises what has been going on all along. Through-out the last six decades various universities aligned themselves either with or against the apartheid regime and made extensive use of university resources (research, teaching et cetera) in doing so. To establish community engagement as a core function of universities no more than formalises such engagement in line with the logic of transformation. This is unproblematic as long as we do not forget the historical role played by institutions such as the Department of Political and International Studies at Rhodes University in the anti-apartheid struggle, at both local and national level.

2. Such an historical perspective will sensitise us to the potential dangers inherent in the increasing bureaucratisation of community engagement, the way it is steadily drawn (and draws us) into a neo-liberal regime of accountability, career-pathing, promotions and the like; a logic which may in some cases contribute to the haphazard and unsustainable nature of these very engagements. In short, we recognise that any bureaucratisation of community engagement (essentially an ethical principle) can be problematic for various reasons dealt with in the relevant literature (Chatterjee, 2004; Incite! 2007).

3. Institutionalised community engagement is inherently ambivalent. One the one hand, the university is independent (a relative term) rather than autonomous (an absolute term). In terms of the former, it exists in a complex network of dependencies, obligations and accountability with the society that funds it. A certain logic of accountability is therefore constitutive of the university’s very existence (Readings, 1996). On the other hand, the institutionalisation of what is essentially an ethical relationship is vulnerable to all sorts of contradictions and neglect:

• Institutionalised community engagement often translates into a neo-liberal, quasi-racist logic of charitable “aid” that, often, is concerned neither with sustainability nor with understanding and addressing the effects of its hidden assumptions.

• One such assumption is the unreflective and simplistic conflation of “community” with “poor” and, given our history, of “poor” with “black”.

• Following on that, this engagement is too often conceived as a one-way flow, from the university outwards to a geographical community construed, unreflectively, to consist of the “poor black” people over there.

4. In recognition of some of these contradictions and complexities the Department of Political and International Studies, recognises:

• the “application of teaching and research resources” as useful although community engagement as such should be more than this (Yapa, 2006);

• that community engagement should be accompanied by curriculum review as the curriculum itself may otherwise undermine the stated intentions of the community engagement initiative (Yapa, 2006);

• as a result, that a curriculum reviewed in response to the needs of the community – visible or imagined - is an essential element of community engagement and that a reflective curriculum without active community engagement may be more valuable than an unreflective curriculum with added-on community engagement.

5. In light of this, the Department of Political and International Studies subscribes to the following:

• That we are all members of a multiplicity of visible and imagined communities that are at once local, national and global.

• While this distinction between three levels of community may have analytical usefulness it also obscures the complex dynamical interaction between them. Such communities do not exist as separate networks (suggestive of “multiple membership”) but rather are linked at various horizontal and vertical levels so that their interaction is at once non-linear and complex (suggestive of “overlapping memberships”). This means that sometimes the best way to serve the interests of a local, visible community may consist in working to support a popular organisation elsewhere in the country to challenge a repressive law in the Constitutional Court; or to contribute to a larger, imagined community by, for instance, becoming president or initiating/contribution to a crucial policy-shaping debate in local/national/global newspapers.

• We also recognise that the bureaucratisation of community engagement is premised on a distinction between charitable work (Saturday mornings in the soup kitchen) and what counts as codified “community engagement” - where the standardised, distinguishing principle seems to be: does this engagement amount to a “meaningful and committed application of teaching, learning and research resources”? If not, it is charity; if yes, it’s community engagement - despite the fact that the former is clearly an example of community engagement. Aside from its unidirectional implication, at the department of Political and International Studies we do not unequivocally reject this distinction but we do note the role it plays in codifying, homogenising and standardising the ethical relationship of individual academics to the various communities they consider themselves members of.

6. In conclusion, we value the freedom of individual staff members not to register, advertise, list or affiliate his/her individual “community” or “out-reach” endeavours with the department or the university. Ultimately, the manner in which we conceive the nature of our ethical response to the communities we consider ourselves members of, is a highly personal matter. It needs to be personal if it is to remain ethical.

Some references

• Butler, M. (ed) Living Learning, Church Land Programme. Pietermaritzburg, 2009

• Chatterjee, P. The Politics of the Governed: Reflections on Popular Politics in Most of the World. Permanent Black: Delhi, 2004

• Englund, H. Prisoners of Freedom: Human Rights & the African Poor. University of California Press: Berkeley, 2006

• Incite! Women of Colour Against Violence (eds). The Revolution Will Not Be Funded: Beyond the Non-profit Industrial Complex. Cambridge, MA: South End Press, 2007.

• Nagar, R. and the Sangtin Writers. Playing with Fire. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press, 2006.

• Readings, B. The University in Ruins. Cambridge, Mass. And London: Harvard University Press, 1996.

• Yapa, L. “Public Scholarship in the Postmodern University” in New Directions for Teaching and Learning, No. 105, Spring 2006.

Engaged Academics

Our staff have completed a number of projects in the past - below is a snapshot of some of the projects that are currently being pursued by some of our staff.

• Prof Paul Bischoff is an international election observer who monitors elections on a regular basis: His assignments have been to Namibia, Swaziland, Papua New Guinea and a number of post-communist states in the area covered by the former Soviet Union. He has also been Special Envoy to Bosnia-Herzegovina and a Party Agent in South Africa's national elections.

• Dr. Tony Fluxman contributes to activism around climate change. Most recently he has been writing critical pieces on global warming for the Rhodes University Environment List in addition to participating and organising local campaigns in support of global reductions of greenhouse gas emissions.

• Dr. Sally Matthews has published on aspects of community engagement, arguing that concerns about the relevance of knowledge are familiar to Africanists. She draws on debates that focus on the hegemonic threat of northern theorising to explore the possibilities and limitations of community engagement. She is also developing a post-graduate course “Privilege and Poverty” which challenges students to reflect on the ways in which the privileged relate to the poor majority in South Africa. Students are required to reflect on their own involvement in community outreach, activism and/or charity work. Dr. Matthews also served on the Rhodes University Community Engagement committee in 2008.

• In 2010 Prof Leonhard Praeg was in the second of a projected three-year teaching based research cycle which addresses the seemingly simple question What is ubuntu? The course is motivated by the fact that any ethical imperative to engage the other - such as community engagement - is premised on the recognition of our interdependence but that the terms in which we theorise that interdependence, are contentious, contextual, historical. Is the principle invoked by ubuntu – “I am because we are” – simply communitarian? Humanist? Does ubuntu offer us anything that these theories do not?

Last Modified: Thu, 17 May 2012 11:27:44 SAST