University on a mission to help people change their lives

For years, students from the University of Pretoria (UP) in South Africa were tormented by robberies that occurred near a dumpsite situated right behind the university’s premises in the suburb of Hatfield in Pretoria.

Today, the piece of land stands firm as a therapy garden where occupational as well as art and wellness therapies are offered to the homeless, recovering substance abusers, old age homes and children from the area – at no cost.

“This was one of two very problematic areas right behind the university,” said Gernia van Niekerk, the UP’s community engagement manager, pointing to the centre which, in the African language Setswana, is now called Moja Gabedi, which means ‘to go through’.

“We started to work with squatters on this side in 2012. It was difficult to build a relationship with them because they were drug addicts and also manufacturing drugs, so we were interfering with their business,” Van Niekerk added.

“Their trust was earned when we started building shelters for them at Reliable House,” she said.

This article is part of a series on Transformative Leadership published by University World News in partnership with Mastercard Foundation. University World News is solely responsible for the editorial content.

A mere 300 metres from Moja Gabedi, lies Reliable House – also once a dumping ground and drug abuse and peddling site.

Established in 2016, Reliable House serves as a transitional centre for substance abusers and the homeless seeking to be reintegrated back into society.

A 2008 study conducted by the Human Sciences Research Council of street homelessness in South Africa estimated that the number of homeless people in South Africa varied between 100,000 and 200,000, with the majority being men.

The centre houses 35 homeless men, who mostly have a history of substance abuse. They receive health care services, counselling, food, and shelter.

“Because they were medically addicted to drugs, we had to get help from the medical faculty, social work, and psychology to provide all those kinds of medical therapies,” Van Niekerk said.

Those recovering from substance abuse are offered Opioid Substitution Therapy to assist with their addictions.

In an article published in UP’s monthly community engagement newsletter, Lentsu La Sechaba, Sukholuhle Tshuma, a social worker for an ancillary unit at the department of family medicine, explains that the “housing [project] is a collaboration between the University of Pretoria’s Unit for Community Engagement and the department of family medicine’s Community Oriented Substance Use Programme, which focuses on a multidisciplinary team substance use intervention using the harm reduction approach”.

Universities as social institutions

Reliable House and Moja Gabedi embody the idea that higher education institutions have to exercise academic responsibility: they enter into a social contract with civil society and have a pivotal role to play in the communities in which they operate.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching defines community engagement as the collaboration between institutions of higher education and their larger communities (local, regional or state, national, global) for the mutually beneficial exchange of knowledge and resources in a context of partnership and reciprocity.

But, as a civic duty, activities should not be vested in using community engagement as a strategy to create a good public image for the institution, although this is considered one of the benefits of participating in and fostering community partnerships.

Professor Ahmed Bawa, the CEO of Universities South Africa, argues that “if universities are to address large societal problems, then collaborative engagement has to be integrated into the core functions of universities rather than as an add-on or be seen to be something good that universities may do”.

He says: “This collaboration rests at the very heart of the mandate of universities as social institutions, as sites of production of knowledge, its application and its dissemination.

“The installation of such an enterprise into the knowledge project of institutions, in turn, ensures that engagement is integrated into their research and innovation, their teaching and learning.”

The testimonials from projects such as Reliable House and Moja Gabeda reveal the transformative power that universities’ civic engagement work can have when carried out in the right way.

Changing lives

Moses ‘Bushie’ van der Merwe, 59, had been living in the streets for about a year before being moved to Caledonian Stadium in Pretoria where the homeless were housed when the COVID-19 pandemic broke out in South Africa in early March last year.

“Life was not well at Caledonian, especially for someone like me who has eyesight problems,” he said.

By the time Van der Merwe moved to Caledonian, the sight in his left eye was fading, which prompted the officials at the stadium to transfer him to Reliable House.

“They helped me regain my sight, and soon I will have an ID because of the people here at Reliable House. I am happy to say that I [have] found a home,” Van der Merwe said.

Phumlani Mbele, a project manager at Reliable House, told University World News that an ophthalmologist from the university performed a cataract removal surgery on Van der Merwe’s left eye.

“He is due to get his right eye cataract removed in March. We want him to have his eyesight so that, when he starts receiving his pension money, he can count it for himself,” said Mbele.

A few metres from the gate where Van der Merwe is being interviewed, Thabang Matete walks in wearing his work overalls, hurries into the premises and greets everyone with a cheerful smile. The 26-year old was homeless and a substance abuser for six years before he began his journey at Reliable House.

“I have been drug-free for one year now and it would not have been possible without the support I received at Reliable. It’s a blessing to have these two fathers here,” he says pointing to the project manager, Mbele, and Emanuel Maringa, the manager of Reliable House.

“They always encourage us so that we have a better vision of our future,” said Matete.

“When we were on the street, we were hopeless, so now we have that hope that we can improve, go back to society and become productive,” he added.

He said he will be furthering his studies at the nearby Tshwane University of Technology where he has been accepted for a place on a diploma programme in business management.

Van Niekerk explained that Moja Gabedi was constructed with the help of various faculties.

One of the features of many of the UP’s community projects is that they involve students and staff from many faculties, including the engineering; built environment and IT; natural and environmental sciences; humanities; health sciences; theology; education; veterinary sciences; economic and management sciences and law.

The university believes that community engagement is core to teaching, learning and research at the institution.

In fact, collaboration with communities beyond its campuses offers students essential knowledge and skills that they would not acquire otherwise.

UP’s own community engagement programme entails more than 1,000 community projects involving more than 26,000 students annually.

“Working at Moja-Gabedi reminded me of how important it is to be in touch with the community that surrounds us. If not, there is no way we can truly apply our skills to help improve the community,” UP student Vangile Mabizela said.

Students from the built engineering faculty were part of the team that built structures on the site and students with an interest in agriculture helped install an irrigation system for the vegetable garden on-site, including establishing the garden itself.

“Other community members are also drawn into the site when they pass by. We’ve had architects, artists and other members show an interest in lending a hand,” said Van Niekerk.

Moja Gabedi is adorned with a giant metal-face sculpture, created by the South African artist Angus Taylor, who stumbled upon the centre while driving past the site.

The sculpture was put together with the help of residents from Reliable House and students.

It serves as a monument to the opportunities and human potential that socially responsible higher education institutions could unlock in their communities.

Community engagement as part of social responsibility will be discussed at a virtual conference titled ‘University Social Responsibility: Priorities for the next decade’, that will be hosted from 3-5 February by the University of Pretoria and the University Social Responsibility Network. To register for the summit, please go to: University Social Responsibility Network.

A webinar on 'How can universities improve their social impact?’ is available on the University World News YouTube Channel here. The webinar was held on 27 January, with 2,200 registered participants. The panel speakers were Hilligje van’t Land, secretary general of the International Association of Universities; Lorlene Hoyt, executive director of the Talloires Network of Engaged Universities; Maha Haidar Makki, director of the Mastercard Foundation Scholars Program at the American University of Beirut, and Maryam Mohiuddin, founder and director of the Social Innovation Lab, Lahore, Pakistan.