Mitchell Shaun Parker
Recently Rhodes played host to its annual Trading Live for Nelson Mandela week, run through the Community Engagement office. In many casual conversations I’ve had over the last few days, concerns over whether or not this week which seems like an attempt to con students and staff alike into getting involved in community engagement – to do the “good thing” – by conjuring the spirit of Nelson Mandela, is really effective. Or is it more like putting a plaster on a bullet wound and hoping it’ll get better?
When students from Rhodes University graduate, they will stand at the 1820 Settlers’ Monument with a view that surveys the whole town – including the parts of the metaphorical “other side of the tracks”. Grahamstown is divided. There is a line in the sand that separates the haves and the have-nots, the educated and the non-educated, those who speak English and those who have grown up speaking isiXhosa.
It’s a common trope that Community Engagement is something that people do to ease their conscience – an activity for those dealing with their privilege and feeling pretty bad about it. You do a good thing for your community and in so doing get a reprieve from that crushing guilt of being societally more powerful.
That, though, is when you actually can convince people to participate. As it stands, despite the fact that Community Engagement is one of the pillars that Rhodes bases its academic project upon, it would likely be easier to get President Zuma to surrender his firepool than it is to get many students to remain actively involved.
So why even bother with Trading Live? One week out of the year for people to get their liberal “I did good” jollies can’t be worth the months of logistical planning that go into an event like this? I sat down with the person in charge of this year’s Trading Live event, Nosipho Mngomezulu, to chat about why the event is in fact so crucial.
It’s important to understand the philosophy behind the project. The concept of Trading Live is seeking to bring people together to “trade” their knowledge base. As an example: One person might know how to knit intricate patterns and another might be good with marketing products. The two could come together to share their knowledge base and in so doing create an exciting economic partnership despite being from entirely different walks of life.
“We share this space of iRhini and maybe we are not going to become BFFs this week, but if I can see you in a situation where you have the knowledge, where you are giving me something that I recognize as valuable, in this moment and in this week I get the opportunity to go ‘Wow’. I get to open up my eyes a little bit to what is already existing around me,” said Mngomezulu.
This is asset-based engagement as opposed to the top-down “acting on” people that is the traditional view of what it means to be involved with community engagement. The former being the proverbial “teaching a man to fish” and the latter being the “give him a fish”.
“It’s about recognizing people as an agent and when you do, they take ownership of that,” explains Mngomezulu.
A high number of these kinds of trades have taken place in the last week, with the rough estimate, as of the time of writing, being just under 100. “People have approached it with a positive attitude and that has been quite reassuring to me,” Mngomezulu noted excitedly.
But to those who still feel this is a once-off thing that won’t really make too much of a real impact, Mngomezulu had the following to say:
“Community engagement needs to be seen as part of a process. We are moving. And somebody has to do that moving. We can’t all be critically engaged and intellectuals. We all come from different places. This is just one opportunity for people to open their eyes. We’re entangled whether we like it or not. We can be adversarial, or we can open up our knowledge base and hopefully spark a longer engagement.
This town is problematic. There are violent experiences that people have with one another. Experiences of exclusion. Experiences of being connected in quite negative ways. And so we start off small. People already have the capacity to do something with their lives. It’s about creating opportunity for people to empower themselves.”
Mngomezulu is aware that there are critics of community engagement at Rhodes. She welcomes their input but does feel like those who are so negative towards it should get involved. “It’s nuanced,” she said, “Whether they are from an academic institution, whether they are outside of it. We’re complicated. We’re three-dimensional. We are not only one thing at a time. It would be short-sighted to say that community engagement is patronising. Can you argue that we need to think more and talk more about our practice? Definitely.”
At the end of the day, yes, the Community Engagement office uses the icon of Nelson Mandela because it is instantly recognizable and it will perhaps get more people involved because they can identify with him as a leader and a hero.
Although they might have summoned his name to promote the event, what they have really done is engage with the true spirit of what Madiba would have wanted from us: the collectedness of mind to participate fully in making a change. Be it a change that takes many years to grow into something more tangible or not – it is a step in the right direction.