Hope in Africa: Human development through higher education community interaction

BOTMAN, Russel (2010)

In this article Prof. H. Russel Botman Rector and Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch University, South Africa and Vice-President of the Association of African Universities reflects upon the higher education community interaction in Africa.

If you plan for a year, sow a seed.

If you plan for a decade, plant a tree.

If you plan for a century, educate the people.

– Zhuangzi (Master Chuang), Chinese philosopher, 4th century BC


A growing number of African universities are joining the Talloires Network, “an international association of institutions committed to strengthening the civic roles and social responsibilities of higher education”. Africa is a continent in great need of empowerment, growth and development, and the network has emerged as an important initiative in the global drive to promote human development.

Stellenbosch University signed up last year. Along with other members, we share the view that “higher education institutions do not exist in isolation from society”. Talloires participants have committed themselves to “education for social responsibility” and the “application of university resources to the needs of local and global communities”. It would be necessary to get a sense of initiatives in our respective regions, and to identify the most important challenges and opportunities for expanding our civic interconnectivity.

This particular article is focused on Africa. It is not a comprehensive overview of higher education community interaction on the continent. Instead, some contextual factors are briefly outlined and the example of Stellenbosch University discussed in more detail.

Higher education community interaction in Africa

The Association of African Universities (AAU) is the overarching network of tertiary institutions on the continent, with nearly 200 members in 45 countries. It plays a role in all five sub-regions of Africa.

The AAU’s mission is “to raise the quality of higher education in Africa and strengthen its contribution to African development”. Note how development is linked to higher education. The AAU also lists community engagement as a core function of universities, alongside teaching, learning and research.

In a submission to the 12th General Conference of the AAU in Abuja, Nigeria in May last year (Botman et al, 2009), it was argued that “knowledge and education is the bedrock of human development” and that “higher education is the capstone of education in society” and “a critical pillar of sustainable human development”. Higher education “imparts knowledge and produces professionals” in a variety of fields, equipping them with the necessary skills to fulfil leadership roles in society and drive the economic growth required for improving people’s lives.

It was pointed out that “in the past, very little empirical evidence showing the link between investment in higher education and economic growth and poverty-reduction existed”, but “more recently... evidence has emerged showing a more complex relationship between higher education and income; tertiary study is both a determinant and result of the latter.”

Higher education results not only in private good (e.g. better employment opportunities, higher salaries), but public benefits too (greater tax revenue and investment, stronger entrepreneurship, reduced population growth, improved technology). This has led the World Bank, UNESCO and donors to acknowledge that “higher education is no longer a luxury; it is essential to future national social and economic development” (Task Force on Higher Education and Society, 2000).

Higher education participation in Africa is very low. According to the United Nations (UN), tertiary enrolment has risen faster in Africa than elsewhere – by some 66% since 1999 – but in 2005, the number of students entering higher education still stood at just 5% of the eligible age group (World Conference on Higher Education, 2009). Comparable figures were 72% in the US, 60-64% in Eastern European countries such as Slovenia and Russia, and 10% in India (Teferra and Altbach, 2003).

In order to address this problem, both the UN and the African Union (AU) have prioritised higher education in Africa. Development of the tertiary sector forms part of the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development, which runs from 2005 to 2014. And it is a key focus of the AU’s Second Decade of Education for Africa, which runs from 2006 to 2015.

Community engagement is highlighted in both campaigns. It benefits both the university and the community, and promotes a shared goal – that of sustainable human development.

Community Interaction

Internationally, the term “community engagement” is commonly used to describe the mechanism through which teaching and research is integrated into a university’s engagement with and in society. Stellenbosch University prefers the term “community interaction”, which offers essentially the same meaning, but emphasises reciprocity between the university the community.

At Stellenbosch University, community interaction as a core function of the university exists to nurture and manage partnerships with communities. This facilitates cooperation between communities and the university. And it provides the means whereby both parties can actively discover knowledge, teach and learn from each other.

Community interaction contributes to an environment where student learning is enriched and research relevance is enhanced. It supports Stellenbosch University’s institutional commitments to reciprocity, redress, development and transformation.

Stellenbosch University is considered a leader in the field of civic engagement because of the extent to which community interaction has been institutionalised. It forms an integral part of governance structures, budget lines, academic work and student activities at the university.

South African Higher Education Community Engagement Forum

Civic engagement is making strides in the South African tertiary education sector. All 23 public universities plus one private institution belong to a new national structure, the South African Higher Education Community Engagement Forum (SAHECEF). It is now duly constituted after a launch conference in Durban (1-2 November 2009) and an inaugural board meeting in Johannesburg (30 November to 1 December 2009).

SAHECEF is representative of university staff responsible for a broad typology of community engagement expressions in South African higher education. It is in the process of obtaining official recognition as a sectoral committee of Higher Education South Africa (HESA), the country’s highest level representative association of universities.

Stellenbosch University played a leading role in the establishment of SAHECEF, and also holds the forum’s chair for 2010-2011.

Universities and the Millennium Development Goals

The Association of Commonwealth Universities (ACU), “one of the largest inter-university networks in the world”, will be focussing on the contribution of universities to the UN’s Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) at its Conference of Executive Heads in South Africa in April 2010.

In its preparatory material for this meeting, the ACU states: “Universities are not mentioned in any of the goals, although it is recognised that the goals cannot be achieved without the research, policy analysis and the teaching and outreach that universities provide”. According to the ACU, its MDG conference “provides an opportunity to demonstrate this essential contribution and will allow universities to re-affirm their commitment to helping to create a sustainable and more equitable world for future generations.

This ties in with the fact that Stellenbosch University has taken the bold step to draw out from the MDGs five themes on which to focus its mission and vision, and so marry higher education with development and economic growth in a more comprehensive way. Stellenbosch University has positioned itself to use its expertise to assist in:

- Eradicating endemic poverty and related conditions

- Contributing to human dignity and health

- Consolidating democracy and human rights

- Promoting peace and security

- Balancing a sustainable environment with a competitive industry

We have decided to draw everything that we do into these developmental themes – research, learning and teaching, as well as community interaction (Botman et al, 2009). Over the past three years faculties have developed research proposals that would direct their expertise into achieving these goals, in a process called the Overarching Strategic Plan (OSP). The result has been the formulation of 23 visionary projects covering topics such as the socio-economic rights of the needy under our constitutional dispensation, the use of Geographic Information Technologies for Africa’s development, renewable and sustainable energy supply for developing regions, food security in Southern Africa, rural health and development, human dignity, as well as invasion biology and environmental sustainability, to mention just a few.

Stellenbosch University’s higher education vision

(Botman et al, 2009.)

Stellenbosch University seeks to embody pedagogy of hope through knowledge pioneering scholarship, research and teaching, generating hope and optimism from and within Africa.

The “pedagogy of hope” concept has been adopted as a guiding principle in teaching, research and learning. This philosophy posits that the main idea driving our university should be rooted in the idea of “hope”.

Hope should be embedded in the skill of teaching and educating. It is a foundation from which the message of possibility over limitations, of opportunity over cynicism, of creation over destruction, indeed, of hope over pessimism is carried through to everyone in our community.

Learning is something more than just imparting knowledge through teaching; it is a special process where we absorb and adapt and question. Knowledge, in all its shapes and forms, is the vehicle through which future opportunities and future success is achieved – the better the vehicle, the more suited it is to individual needs, the better the journey and destination.

Generating hope from Africa is thus a future-oriented vision for education on the continent. The global development agenda is similar in its focus; the identification of social, health and political goals which we as a global community should strive to achieve.

An example of one of Stellenbosch University’s strategic projects with a strong element of community interaction is the TsamaHUB project (an acronym derived from its full name – the Centre for Transdisciplinarity, Sustainability, Assessment, Modelling and Analysis). The TsamaHUB is conducted in partnership with the Sustainability Institute and its Eco-Village concept. It also forms part of an agreement between Stellenbosch University and the Stellenbosch Municipality called “Reinventing Stellenbosch: A Sustainable University Town”. These connections express the need for science to move beyond the confines of classrooms to the communities and societies where development is most needed.

We have turned the town of Stellenbosch and the surrounding areas into a living laboratory to pioneer new knowledge and to create tangible hope for the less fortunate.

Our academics and students are the knowledge partners of the municipality on issues such as land reform, spatial development and planning, water purification, refuse management and a scientific approach to the landfill problem, as well as issues pertaining to infrastructural planning for the future and ensuring a sustainable environment and responsible resource usage in the country’s leading wine and deciduous fruit region. And the golden thread running through all these projects of social reconstruction is tangible hope for all our people.

In the following graphic (Figure 1), the 23 strategic projects are positioned respectively to the five developmental themes. Each of the projects feed into one or more of the themes. Importantly, the OSP projects have an overtly inter-faculty, interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary orientation. They also engage partners from various spheres of society: industry, government, non-governmental organisations and faith based organisations, urban and rural communities, science councils, and partner universities elsewhere in Africa and beyond.

Challenges for higher education community engagement

  • Conceptualisation: It remains a challenge in higher education to arrive at a common definition of what civic engagement is. It is also a challenge to rid ourselves of the old paradigm of “community service” that keep us captive and to arrive at a more reciprocal concept that emphasises partnership and mutual benefit.
  • Institutionalisation: Civic engagement is not yet universally accorded the status of a fully-fledged academic core function of universities. The challenge is to develop and institute appropriate mechanisms for community interaction at an institutional level.
  • Quality assurance: The challenge is to develop quality assurance mechanisms and management indicators for civic engagement that are similar to those developed for research and for teaching & learning.
  • Funding: In South Africa – and elsewhere on the continent – government subsidies are earned for research and teaching & learning, but not for all types of civic engagement work.

Opportunities for future development

(Slamat, 2009)

  • The hope of finding sustainable solutions to the most pressing problems of society through research is perhaps the greatest opportunity for higher education community interaction.
  • Through their involvement in community interaction, the social responsiveness of students can potentially be enhanced. This is supported by anecdotal evidence gained from student feedback at Stellenbosch University. It is hoped that socially responsive students who ideally become socially responsive citizens and professionals.
  • Through their involvement in community interaction, academics can potentially become capable and committed to address and improve the human condition. This also is supported by anecdotal evidence gained from lecturer feedback at Stellenbosch University.
  • Civic engagement has the potential to advance a certain kind of community, namely communities with a voice, committed to partnership and a spirit of reciprocity.
  • Community interaction has the potential to facilitate a participatory pedagogy, where the barriers between those who teach and those who learn, and between those inside the university and those outside the university become blurred.
  • Related to this is the recognition of the existence of different types of knowledge sources, both inside and outside the university and the possibility of a more modest epistemology, that recognizes the complex nature of our world, and that values the centrality of interpretation.
  • Community interaction makes it possible to view the university not in terms of a well-oiled machine, but as an engaged institution fosters hope – because of the honest efforts of many committed and inspired individuals and group inside it.


Our vision for Africa is a future free from poverty, where the human dignity of all people is protected, where our social and ecological systems are healthy, and where peace, security and democracy are safeguarded (Botman, et al, 2009).

Higher education community interaction is central to the realisation of this vision because it, too, is essentially aimed at achieving sustainable human development.

The implication for universities is that community interaction is far more that a peripheral activity, but in fact a key driver in the academic project. As such, higher education civic engagement in Africa should be strengthened and expanded.

This paper was presented at the Talloires Network Bellagio Conference, Italy, 23-27 March 2010.


Botman, HR, Van Zyl, A, Fakie A, Pauw, C. 2009. A Pedagogy of Hope: Stellenbosch University’s Vision for Higher Education and Sustainable Development. Abuja. Association of African Universities: Conference Papers, 12th General Conference, Abuja, Nigeria, 4-9 May 2009.

Slamat, J, 2009. How does service-learning support pedagogy of hope? Paper delivered at the International Symposium on Service-Learning, Athens, Greece, 22-24 November 2009.

Task Force on Higher Education and Society. 2000. Higher education in developing countries: peril and promise. Washington, DC, World Bank.

Teferra, D and Altbach, PG. 2003. Trends and Perspectives in African Higher Education. African Higher Education: An International Reference Handbook. D. Teferra and P. G. Altbach. Bloomington, Indiana University Press: 3-14.

World Conference on Higher Education. 2009. Promoting excellence to accelerate Africa’s Development: Towards an African Higher Education and Research Area. UNESCO. Paris, France, 5-8 July 2009.

About the author

Russel Botman is Rector and Vice-Chancellor of Stellenbosch University, South Africa since January 2007. Prior to this he served the University for four years as Deputy Vice-Rector: Teaching. In this capacity he was responsible for the academic program, student affairs, quality assurance, academic support and the management of all deans. In his academic career he served the University of the Western Cape as professor and Dean in the Faculty of Theology and since 2000 he is a professor of Theology at Stellenbosch University. He founded the Beyers Naudé Centre for Public Theology at Stellenbosch University in 2002 and served on the Ministerial Task Group for the Minister of Education of South Africa. He holds a Ph.D. in Theology from the University of Western Cape.

Monday, April 26, 2010


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