Research must develop communities
Prof Elize van Eeden, a researcher and senior lecturer at the Vaal Triangle Campus of the North-West University (NWU Vaal), heads-up a multidisciplinary research team focusing on the mining community of Bekkersdal – west of Johannesburg.
Prof Van Eeden (Far right) with some of the researchers giving feedback to management of the Westonaria Local Municipality during the first session
Together with a research team – consisting of 19 researchers from 11 disciplines, including: history, public management and governance, water studies, psychology, sociology, risk and disaster studies as well as law and political studies, their the aim to explore – in an integrated way, the realities a community such as Bekkersdal experiences on a daily basis. With Bekkersdal being known for its mining activities there is a strong emphasis on research pertaining to the past and current eco-wellbeing of the area.
Collaborating with the Bekkersdal community
The study - which came about in 2013 after funding was sourced from the National Research Foundation (NRF), values community involvement as the centre of all inquiry. With this in mind the research team recently met with community leaders, officials from the local municipality as well as a project team at the Westonaria Town Hall for a second consultative meeting. During this meeting – which proved to be very successful, the research team shared their research findings pertaining to the living conditions, well-being of residents as well as the perceived quality of life with the community. By sharing information with the community the researchers were able to interact freely with community members and engage in meaningful discussions.
The meeting was divided into two sessions: during the first, research findings and recommendations as pointed out by the baseline survey results of 2014 on the health and well-being of the community, followed by more discipline-focused research in 2015, were presented by the team to the municipal management. Prof Van Eeden also highlighted very meaningful recommendations as possibilities to consider in the future. “I believe these recommendations could be of great benefit to the poverty stricken area of Bekkersdal,” said Van Eeden.
During the second session, the same presentations were made to members of the community and various community leaders, but this time with a more specific focus on the 2015 research efforts (as conducted by researchers in the fields of public management, sociology, water studies and risk and disaster management). These presentations were followed-up by intensive group discussions during which the residents and community leaders deliberated on and gave their input on the findings that were presented. They (members of the community and community leaders) also highlighted matters they believed to be either underrepresented or lacking in this research project.
During this session the community was given the assurance that the research results will continually be shared with the community of Bekkersdal. According to participating researchers, these results should identify patterns of social capital that should buffer the effects of current poverty levels and help in promoting overall well-being.
Crossing the divide through multidisciplinary research
The research project is funded by the NRF, under the theme: “Integrative Multidisciplinary-focused research on the health and well-being status of mining communities”, have unearthed some interesting observations such as the identification of a strong sense of community, belonging, and cooperation.
According to Prof Van Eeden, the research project “epitomises harmonious research collaboration and teamwork across a diversity of fields of study. It furthermore demonstrates active community engagement and commitment whilst aslo being optimally positioned for positive social transformation.”
She adds that through innovation and inclusive development, universities could be instrumental in fighting poverty and expanding opportunities for marginalised communities. Prof Van Eeden states that the research project reflects the North-West University’s three pillars of excellence, namely: teaching-learning, research and community engagement.
In responding to the presentations by the research team, Mr Dumile Dlamini, a representative of the local municipality said that universities exist within communities and therefore must be able to – through the research they conduct, contribute towards the wellbeing and of these communities. A consolidated report will be presented to the municipality upon completion.
Researchers on this project hail mainly from the Vaal Triangle Campus and Potchefstroom Campus, with a few research collaborators from other academic research institutions such as UNISA and TUT (Tshwane University of Technology). Several postgraduate students of the NWU are also members of the team.