Community engagement: anchoring UCT in the community

04 November 2022
UCT staff and students joined Friends of the Liesbeek and  Rosebank residents for a massive Liesbeek River clean-up.
UCT staff and students joined Friends of the Liesbeek and Rosebank residents for a massive Liesbeek River clean-up.

How is the university supporting, building solidarity with and providing professional services to communities?

Community engagement
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What is being tested?

Integration Collaboration with civil society organisations F.1 The faculty/department directly has a written agreement to collaborate with a community-based, civil or social organisation or enterprise which seeks to contribute to social justice, human rights, redress or response to violence, discrimination or harassment, or is otherwise committed to transformation, inclusivity or diversity.
Integration Multilateral networks F.2 The faculty/department has participated in multilateral engagements with community-based, civil or social sector bodies, networks or other coordination mechanisms which seek to contribute to social justice, human rights, redress or response to violence, discrimination or harassment, or are otherwise committed to transformation, inclusivity or diversity.
Integration Contribution to social change F.3 In the preceding 12 months the faculty/department has made at least one substantive contribution to multilateral engagements with community-based, civil or social sector bodies, networks or other coordination mechanisms which seek to contribute to social justice, human rights, redress or response to violence, discrimination or harassment, or are otherwise committed to transformation, inclusivity or diversity.
Integration Technical support F.4 The faculty/department has built relationships with community-based, civil or social sector organisations or enterprises which contribute to learning, technical support, research or provision of direct services/support (ad hoc or otherwise).
Integration Engagement and solidarity F.5 Opportunities are offered to staff and students to connect with, learn from, apply learning to or build solidarity with and support diverse social constituencies.

What does the benchmark reveal?

This benchmark proposes actions the university can take to be more rooted in, engaged with and responsive to the needs of the communities UCT is based in or works with. This could include participation in networks or movements, providing technical support or contributing to social change which is transformative or socially just. In 2021, many departments and faculties conducted small and tactical actions which build solidarity with communities. While the impact of the actions taken does vary, it’s important to appreciate that action in this benchmark area has been growing each year.

Integration While only one faculty met all the criteria of this benchmark, several other entities met the majority of the benchmark criteria. Several faculties and departments participated in strong multilateral engagements which contributed to social justice. Several of these engagements contributed to projects providing technical (legal and healthcare) support services that brought about positive change in the communities UCT works with and, in some cases, civil society organisations.
Integration Few departments and faculties have written agreements with community civil society organisations. While this allowed for more flexible and organic arrangements to arise, this flexibility may be less impactful than formal and long-term partnerships. In addition, unlike in 2020, fewer multilateral partnerships were deemed to contribute to impactful social change.

Which actions contributed to this benchmark?

To meet this benchmark, entities within UCT initiated partnerships with a range of institutions to further transformation. For example, entities initiated partnership with other universities (many located on the African continent and in South Africa), United Nations and government agencies, the South African Police Service (SAPS), and community-based organisations. Few of the partnerships focused solely on contributing to transformation or social justice, even though many are likely to contribute to transformation in a small way. Partnerships contributed to:

  • COVID-19 response: Many entities have increased their engagements during the COVID-19 pandemic, including mental health workshops, online teacher training workshops and specific health interventions (vaccine access or COVID-19 related policy development).
  • Research: including research on the effects of COVID-19, which was used by the South African government; and research which contributed to the Sustainable Development Goals.
  • Solidarity: including interventions which donated laptops and other technology to needy schools; feeding schemes in low-income neighbourhoods; and community-centred responses to social challenges. For example, the UCT Global Citizenship Programme partners with the Development Action Group (DAG) to bring several community based-organisations (eg the Bo-Kaap Civic Association and Khayelitsha Peace-Builders) together with students to create change in their communities. The partnership has spanned several years, which is an indication of its effectiveness. Students in the courses refer to the participation of DAG and the community-based partners as central to their learning.
  • Technical support: including providing patient-centred and diverse health services to communities; creating spaces for black scholars, artists and community activists; and partnerships with the primary and secondary education sectors to strengthen teaching and learning practices. In addition, the Law faculty continues to provide legal support in relation to refugee rights and land redress.
  • Activism: partnerships with initiatives like the Fairwork Project, which highlights unfair labour practices, and the Cybersecurity Capacity Centre for Southern Africa (C3SA)which aims to strengthen the region’s preparedness to fight cybercrime, are likely to contribute to social justice.

Some of the themes covered under this benchmark include supporting marginalised communities; upholding Constitutional values and law; a focus on gender equality and women’s empowerment; homelessness and poverty; and disability inclusion in teacher education. Entities also reported an increase in intersectoral engagement and transdisciplinary approaches in this work.

Who contributed to this benchmark?

Seven faculties and five non-academic departments contributed to this benchmark.

How effective were the actions?

This benchmark is one of only two benchmark areas where actions have been consistently strengthening each year. For example, in 2021 more entities reported developing formalised relationships with community partners, compared to previous years. In addition, while transformation is not always the specific focus of interventions, many have transformational outcomes. For example, providing legal or healthcare services to marginalised persons, or connecting researchers to community-based organisations, is likely to lead to positive outcomes for the individuals or communities involved. That said, it is important for entities to be more intentional in creating partnerships with transformation as an intended consequence. In particular, power dynamics are rarely talked about in community engagement actions, and a stronger focus on the dynamics and practices of power is needed.


It is important for community engagement actions to be connected and to talk to each other as much as possible. It is recommended that the Transformation Forum holds a special seminar inviting the leads of community engagement initiatives to speak on their work, and creates a platform for exchange of knowledge, interrogation of ideas and learning on how power dynamics play out in this work.

An example of the good practicre

Blackademic Womxn – an initiative of a staff member in the Commerce faculty – is a social media initiative aimed at increasing the output of master’s and PhD degrees among black womxn in South Africa. The Blackademic platform strives to provide academic and psychosocial support to this group. It serves as a connection or meeting space that connects black womxn in academia to each other, and to other individuals or entities that can support them. Blackademic touches on topics affecting modern black academics and academics of colour, particularly womxn, in South African universities.

Transformation special and institutional projects: Social Responsiveness at UCT

Social responsiveness (SR) efforts at UCT occur in parallel and in a complementary manner to TDI interventions. Social responsiveness focuses on socially engaged research and teaching which connects UCT to and invites UCT to respond to broader socio-economic challenges in South Africa, Africa and the world. The Social Responsiveness portfolio compiles an annual report that captures the range of community-centred partnerships and interventions UCT is engaged with, including good practices that highlight the ways the university can deepen its understanding of engaged scholarship and scholarly practice. To learn more and view these good practices, see the SR report

Unlike in 2020, where community engagement was limited by COVID-19, in 2021 many new and innovative initiatives emerged. These initiatives, with both local and international partners, contribute to the teaching, learning and research space. They enable UCT students to learn from communities, and communities to access technical skills and ad hoc support. While we can celebrate that this benchmark area has been strengthened in the past three years, it’s also important for good practices across UCT to grow out of insularity to interconnectedness within the university.

Warning Signs

Warning signs

In the first three years of capturing data on the benchmarks, entities reported meeting 50-70% of the Community Engagement benchmark requirements. Each year, entities reported achieving more of the benchmark requirements. Even with this positiveachievement, it’s important to note that many non-academic departments do not contribute to this benchmark.



While the challenges above are still present, there are several hopeful sparks of change. For example, the focus on partnerships which contribute to solidarity, activism and technical support all offer entry points to creating lasting social change.


Transformative awakening

The growth of partnerships, specifically formal partnerships between UCT and communitybased, social justice and civil society organisations, is likely to lead to positive changes in the communities where UCT works. It is important to sustain and support these partnerships over a longer period of time.


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