School of Religion, Philosophy & Classics

Webinar tackles community engagement as a site of struggle in universities

From left: Professor Gerald West, Professor Brij Maharaj and Ms Tracey Sibisi.
From left: Professor Gerald West, Professor Brij Maharaj and Ms Tracey Sibisi.

The School of Religion, Philosophy and Classics (SRPC) and the Ujamaa Centre recently hosted a webinar that tackled the contested nature of Community Engagement (CE) within the University setting. It featured UKZN academics Professors Gerald West and Brij Maharaj, and student and community activist Ms Tracey Sibisi. They deliberated on the role of CE in both the academy and the community.

SRPC Academic Leader – Community Engagement Professor Lilian Siwila said, ‘The School has a long history of community engagement activities. A number of CE activities that are carried out by different academics within the School have not only put us on the global map but have also contributed to research output and academic excellence through the integration of community activities into research and teaching and learning. One of the planned activities for 2021-2022 is to create space for colleagues to share their research in a form of indaba – conversation between and among each other.’

The webinar focused on the importance of CE within the process of social transformation in the field of research.

In re-conceptualising CE engagement for the future, West noted that socially engaged scholarship requires recognition of UKZN as an enduring site of struggle. ‘Socially engaged scholars should facilitate “invigorated spaces” within UKZN’s notion of CE as “invited space”, so that together we may forge “invented spaces” in which to collaborate for social transformation, including the transformation of UKZN,’ he said.

West added that, ‘we do not understand that the bodies of those at the margins become an important part of social transformation and this cannot come from community engagement as a secondary tool of change.’

According to Maharaj, ‘The ultimate challenge for academics in South Africa is to maintain and sustain a critical intellectual agenda which is sensitive to the stresses and strains of transformation, and to survive in an era of commodification of knowledge.’

He argued that the University has a responsibility to provide the space for critical intellectuals to develop and ideas to flourish. ‘The need to sustain a critical, independent intellectual prospectus in academia cannot be overemphasised, given South Africa’s repressive apartheid legacy and Africa’s postcolonial record.’

Sibisi asserted that within academia, contextual realities are viewed from a place of privilege. ‘Community engagement should be viewed as the starting point of all transformative conversations because it informs us from a point of lived experience.’

As a student occupying both spaces of transformation, Sibisi realised that the field informs her academic work. ‘Our biggest failure within the academic world is the misconception that because we are academically informed, we add more value to discussions of social transformation than those that are within our communities. We mine communities and forget to reflect and act on this data in a way that serves those at the margins,’ she said.

She believes that researchers need to work hand in hand with activists involved in community engagement.

‘Through this kind of partnership, academics will be able to work towards social transformation by learning the language of the community and activists in the field, as well as reflections from the perspective of academia and the marginalised,’ said Sibisi. ‘This is a powerful tool because it acknowledges the community, shows respect and is received well, which will make the process of transformation an effective one. This is the strength of Uthingo Network, Ujamaa Centre and the Gender and Religion Programme at UKZN.’