The University of Venda (UNIVEN)’s Institute for Rural Development (IRD) hosted a “citizen-centred rural development” workshop seeking to connect the University with the Madonsi, Manenzhe, Masia, Njhakanjhaka, Sinthumule and Tshivhase Traditional Authorities. The workshop was held at Muofhe Graceland Lodge in Thohoyandou from 29-30 September 2021.
The Deputy Vice-Chancellor Research and Postgraduate Studies, Prof Nosisi Nellie Feza, officially opened the workshop. She explained that the participants, that included Senior traditional leaders, “came together to teach us on how we should work together, within our context, with our own people, in our own spaces and make sure that we develop our economy where we stay rather than moving around chasing urban life that doesn’t give us any quality in terms of life”. Turning her attention to rural development, she said “we tend to think that it is inferior, yet rural areas feed us. Rural development 2 creates quality cultural ways of living, inclined towards developing people and especially young people to become citizens who are more responsible”.
Prof Feza went on to talk about integrity, highlighting the importance of respect for each other and what we do. She said that “through embracing Ubuntu and working together, we can achieve wonderful things”. She highlighted that the two–day workshop should be seen as a critical milestone and significant legacy that cannot be ignored because it would discuss issues faced in rural areas and the country at large because of the dominance of rural areas. “…..what you are doing there …the whole nation will learn from us…” Prof Feza noted that there are some parts of the country where people survive on harnessing natural resources mainly. Continuing with her address, she appreciated the abundant resources that Vhembe District is blessed with and can be used to uplift the standards of living of people. In this regard, participation of Senior traditional leaders and South African National Civic Organisation (SANCO) representatives must be applauded because of their importance in shaping development agendas and implementation processes.
After the DVC’s official opening address, Dr Agnes Mathaulula and Ms Amukelani Hlaiseka who are respectively a Senior Lecturer and Innovation Champion for Local Economic Development in the IRD, facilitated discussions and demonstrations on some key norms and protocols of the Tsonga and Venda people. The essence of cultural diversity of different people, languages and how they are practiced in engaged scholarship and daily lives was emphasised.
The Director of the Institute for Rural Development, Prof Francis, presented an overview of the core business of the IRD. He explained the vision of the IRD as follows, “we strive to be a leading university-based player in engaged scholarship for combating rural underdevelopment”. Through establishing platforms for engaging a wide range of stakeholders as was the case with the workshop at hand to yield solutions to problems that rural areas face, the IRD continues to shape itself into a relevant, dynamic and gender-sensitive institution. With regards to operational integrity, Prof Francis mentioned that the IRD values, respects and facilitates the involvement of children, youth, adults, 4 and community-based institutions in development programming. All this is done to produce positive change agents both from its postgraduate studies programmes and rural community-based work.
Commenting on the criticism that universities spend too much time conducting research in rural areas, Prof Francis pointed out that “…. Thus, we should never apologise on such matters of principle”. He clarified this position, clarifying that universities exist to carry out research, teach and engage communities to find solutions to societal challenges. In addition, Prof Francis argued that all people conduct research virtually every day. Aiming to simplify his argument further, he opined that when one asks questions on things not clear to him or her, he/she is conducting research. Given this situation, he questioned why university staff are criticised for doing what they are established to do.
Continuing with his presentation, Prof Francis revealed that, ”…The need for placing culture at the centre of our development enterprise is not negotiable”. Thus, when facilitating development in grassroots communities, cultural practices and traditions of local people are paramount. In this respect, development work should be packaged and communicated through innovative ways such as music, poems and drama. In this way, society is educated whilst being entertained at the same time.
The Director of Community Engagement, Prof Vhonani Netshandama added that since the University exists to demonstrate its relevance and responsiveness to societal issues, postgraduate students and researchers should be encouraged to identify potential areas for community-based research.
The first day of the workshop was extremely rich in sharing knowledge about the cultural practices that community-based workers should know and appreciate. Participants pointed out that the emerging partnership was promising in many respects. This made Dr J.G. Tshifularo, who led the Tshivhase Traditional Authority delegation, to say, “…..the results of this partnership must be visible and measurable”. To set a powerful pace to make this real, the participants proceeded to work in their respective interest groups to co-generate the criteria to use to assess the relevance of a university to grassroots community development, engaged scholarship and impact in society. The interest groups comprised youth, postgraduate students, civic associations, Traditional leaders, women, academic staff, and representatives of Executive Deans of the Faculties of the University.
Engagements involving the various interest groups during the workshop confirmed that indeed it was a unique milestone in rural development practice. This was the first time in the history of the University that delegations of Traditional Authorities and University campus community came together to negotiate, reimagine, and interrogate issues as equal partners and co-design a rural development agenda to be jointly implemented. By so doing, UNIVEN clearly showed its commitment to the practice of engaged scholarship in line with its vision, namely “A University leading in engaged scholarship”. For the IRD, the workshop was ample proof to society it was living up to its slogan, “Taking the University to its rightful owners”.
The workshop laid a foundation for building viable partnerships for improved livelihoods of grassroots communities. A key outcome of the workshop was that the foundation for a process of building a shared understanding of relevance, engaged scholarship and positive societal impact was laid, including the initiation of active involvement of children, youth, adults and community leaders in the six Traditional Authorities. On day two of the workshop, the participants reviewed a draft Memorandum of Understanding to be signed with UNIVEN.
The Acting Dean of the Faculty of Health Sciences, Prof Lizzy Netshikweta, delivered a vote of thanks. She implored Prof Francis and Prof Netshandama to continue organising workshops of this nature. They help gather ideas from multiple stakeholders on how engaged scholarship as outlined in the UNIVEN strategic plan, 2021-2025 can be attained. “This workshop has helped us as a University because we now know what to do to remain relevant and this will enable us to achieve our strategic objectives”, Prof Netshikweta concluded.
Hosi Njhakanjhaka, Advocate Samuel Mukhari speaking on behalf of the Chiefs, thanked the University for seeing the need to engage with them as community members, and most importantly demonstrating the desire to improve the lives of people. He summarised the essence of the workshop, clarifying that this was a critical step in rural development which starts with empowerment proceeds through leadership and achieve change. He said through the workshop, participants learned a lot from each other and from the University itself. “It is now our responsibility as community members who participated in this workshop to take what we learned here to our people who we were representing. Our community members who couldn’t attend this workshop with us will also assist us to implement what we have learned here. We drafted our Memorandum of Understanding to be signed between the six represented communities and the University.” He went on to say the Memorandum of Understanding will among other things help deal with issues that communities face. “We are ready for implementation”, he declared the Traditional Councils’ commitment to the success of the partnership. His remarks marked the end of the two days of vibrant and fruitful interaction between UNIVEN and the representatives of the six Traditional Authorities.
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University of Venda
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Date: 07 October 2021