The NWU’s people-centred approach to community engagement during the Covid-19 pandemic

Phenyo Mokgothu

On 22 March 2022, President Cyril Ramaphosa announced what was essentially the end of the country’s lockdown or state of national disaster almost two years since it was imposed. This is an opportune time to look back on how the North-West University (NWU) responded to community needs during the Covid-19 pandemic.

While the teaching and learning business of the university went ahead with minimal disruption as staff and students moved online, the NWU’s community engagement arm faced many challenges in its conventional programme of interacting with stakeholders

The challenges ranged from cuts in the budgets, to limits on service learning and work integrated learning placements, says Beatrix Bouwman, director for Sustainability and Community Impact (SCI).

“However, owing to the consolidative and collaborative nature of our NWU team, we were soon able to map out a way to solve the community engagement challenges.”

She says the total number of engaged activities decreased from more than 300 before the pandemic to just over 170 activities during Covid-19, since many of their community engagement activities could not take place during stricter levels of lockdown. 

“During lower levels of lockdown in 2021, we saw a comeback, and in combination with improved reporting, we managed to conduct almost 500 community engagement activities,” Beatrix adds.

Responding to Covid-19 challenges in communities

Following a thorough consultative process and sponsored by local businesses, the NWU converted its mobile science lab vehicles into Covid testing facilities and produced mobile screening apparatus, ventilators, sanitisers and a food ATM. The ATM was used to deliver high-protein meals to community partners, using tokens to activate the dispensing of the food.

“During the first three months of the hard lockdown, the Student Representative Council (SRC) and student volunteers conducted a food collection drive. Many staff members also responded with a variety of outreach activities to support their communities,” she adds.

Community engagement has changed forever

The digital business strategy (DBS) that the university is implementing will play an important role in community engagement in the future, as will the development of entrepreneurs. An example is how many students and staff utilised online communication such as bite size lessons for teachers on WhatsApp as part of service learning in the Faculty of Education.

“There is a greater awareness of life-long learning and a stronger emphasis on entrepreneurship development. We are already sponsoring the provincial innovation competitions and mentoring and assisting local innovators,” says Beatrix.

Training and community based partnerships have been established between the NWU’s SCI support unit, the International Knowledge for Change Hubs (K4C), and the University of the Free State, where mentorship of community partners have created the capacity to do local community based research.

“It is important that the NWU uses its community engagement portfolio to respond to the needs of its stakeholders and communities. The pandemic, devastating as it was, provided an opportunity for the NWU to lead through innovation during a global crisis,” concludes Beatrix.


 Beatrix Bouwman, director for Sustainability and Community Impact at the NWU.

Submitted on Thu, 04/21/2022 - 10:11