Professor Vhonani Olive Netshandama – Director – Community Engagement

Professor Vhonani Olive Netshandama’s career journey has come full circle. Trained as a Mental Health Nurse and Midwife, after completing her 4-year diploma in nursing sciences, she proceeded to enroll for her first degree through distance learning with the University of South Africa (UNISA) majoring in Nursing Education and Nursing Administration. She subsequently completed an Honours, then Masters’ degree with the same university between 1993-1997. She completed her Doctoral Degree in Nursing Education and Professional Nursing with the University of Johannesburg former RAU (Randse Afrikaanse Universiteit) in 2003, where she explored on how a university nursing department can partner with a community in a mutually beneficial way. 

Born and bred in a small village, Tshandama, she matriculated from Thengwe High School and worked as a private teacher just at 17 years of age, “I initially wanted to be a social worker but being a nurse tutor- ‘we used to call lecturers at the nursing college tutors’, made me realise that nursing was the next best thing for me. My mentees know that one of my favourite sayings is that they should embrace their reality and move on. Do not fight option B (nursing in my case), it may just end up your option, like most of us -we (blacks) do not yet have the liberty to grow with our first option”. 

Immediately after graduating, she briefly worked at Mutale Health Centre, then she moved on to work at Kalafong hospital in Pretoria and later in 1995 joined UNISA as a Kellogg funded contract junior lecturer. “The period between 1994 to1997 was a challenging one for me, I was juggling three jobs, however UNISA, at that time allowed me the flexibility as I would be at the University (UNISA) from morning till 1pm, then drive to MedPharm in Johannesburg city centre to process doctors’ claims until 9pm or later. On weekends, I would go ‘moonlight’ at Tshepo Temba hospital whilst working on my Master’s degree, which looked at hospitals creating a conducive learning environment for nursing students. I can say, this has always been my concern, and has shaped the way I look at teaching and learning to date. 

“In 1999, I joined the University of Venda, and at that time I had a 2-week-old baby. This was when I started being curious about Community based Nursing Education practice architectures, so I chose to drop my approved PhD studies with UNISA, which intended to explore diversity management in Higher education, in order for me to join the University of Johannesburg to study University – Community partnership-based learning. In fact, I don’t know which one was harder because during this time, we (together with colleagues from the then Department of Nursing Science) were scrambling to create a thriving Department”. Prof Netshandama was the only other person who had a Masters’ degree by then, so she took on the responsibility of taking care of the Department while the late Professor Mahoko fought the bigger fights and other colleagues completed their Masters’ degrees. Together they developed new programmes, re-curriculated old ones so that they could be community based and project organised. “We really explored problem-based learning, all this without the necessary funding. 

In commemorating the Women’s month, I wish to honor the woman who led the Department and created the School of Health Sciences, the late Professor Sophie Mahoko. She was fierce, fearless, and blunt”. 

During the period 1999-2008, Prof. Netshandama served as a coordinator of external engagements and partnerships, a responsibility that was influenced by the choice of her PhD focus. Among other things, she was instrumental in the inception and diversification of a collaborative project with the University of Virginia’s Center for Global Health and the School of Nursing in the USA. The project, entitled “Water and Health in Limpopo”, was born, which later had many spinoffs and more than 100 undergraduate and post graduate students from both universities working with communities as part of their respective learning programmes. “I would work with professors and colleagues across disciplines, e.g., engineers, medical doctors, microbiologists, environmental scientists, etc. To date, the collaboration has produced rated professors and graduates doing great work across the globe.” 

“In 2009, I became the first Director of Community Engagement at the University of Venda. At this point as a Senior Lecturer and an Associate Professor, I had been navigating teaching, research, and community engagement, including supervision of master’s students. My first master’s candidates were my colleagues”. Prof Netshandama has to date supervised 28 

Masters Students and 18 PhD students. “I have mentored hundreds, including those of other universities nationally, in the USA and the Netherlands to name a few”. She continues to supervise postgraduate students under her role as Director of Community Engagement so that they are able to benefit from her scholarship of community engagement. She is truly a community engagement champion where she is constantly conducting workshops for her students and colleagues on the critical emancipatory paradigm. She also co-publishes with students and colleagues and has over 50 publications in health and nursing, Indigenous Knowledge systems, community engagement partnerships in higher education, and lately social entrepreneurship education and development. 

Having been in Higher Education for over two decades, she believes academics need to rethink their teaching and learning styles, where they infuse community engagement into their curriculum. “Learners and students will not always fit and/or get everything they require to thrive, through a neatly packaged programme delivery. They certainly require more – call it soft skills, transversal skills, or critical cross field outcomes. We need to embrace the ‘learning everywhere ‘concept and practice. No single discipline does it all. Similarly, to be a successful entrepreneur, one needs to know how to do stuff, how to solve problems, adapt, reconstruct, etc. Innovative spaces are free thinking spaces”. Higher Education Community Engagement Programmes, she believes is the goal toward transformative practices of universities. Naming and dismantling privileged knowledges and epistemicide is her forte. In this regard, she is deliberate in collaborating with esteemed colleagues from other universities to create a 5pm Wednesday webinar series for decolonial scholars to exchange lessons and case studies from participatory action research projects to contextualised supervision as decolonial emancipatory scholarship. She would rather be with the students and community co-learning most of her time. A social entrepreneur, having tried and tested several community-based action oriented self-directed co-learning and development programmes. 

She is currently fully involved in mapping the ecosystems of entrepreneurship, social entrepreneurship education and the scholarship of community engagement. 

Professor Netshandama has recently launched a rural Woman in Entrepreneurship support programme, which intends to upskill, coach and mentor women and girls in rural areas. Through a holistic mentorship programme (including addressing wellbeing and mental health issues), rural women, including female students and staff of the University of Venda, are encouraged to be entrepreneurial and to stay focused on their entrepreneurship projects. Furthermore, Professor Netshandama launched the skills for the future programme (SFFP) for grade 12 learners in rural areas. This project allows her and her team to contribute towards bridging the gap between schooling and tertiary education. 100 learners who were carefully selected received tablets funded by the BANKSETA. The programmes include introduction to data science, cybersecurity, career counselling and job readiness coaching sessions. 

Issued by:
Department of Marketing, Branding & Communication
University of Venda
Tel: (015) 962 8525 /8710
Date: 31 August 2022 

Skip to content