Stellenbosch University
Welcome to Stellenbosch University
Breaking barriers
Author: Corporate Communication - Rene van der Berg
Published: 16/01/2020

​Sharing a classroom and having lessons side by side with incarcerated individuals at a correctional facility was until now unheard of for students at Stellenbosch University (SU). But this transformative student experience is exactly what Dr Mary Nel, senior lecturer of the Faulty of Law, achieved with a new short course she initiated at the Brandvlei Correctional Centre in Worcester.

Called the Ubuntu Learning Short Course, the initiative is the result of a social impact partnership between SU and the Department of Correctional Services. The interdisciplinary 14-week course, which brought together SU students and incarcerated individuals from Brandvlei for three-hour classes once a week at the correctional centre, started in March. The aim of the course was to promote social justice and to rehumanise learning through collaboration, community-building and connectedness.

“We often fear, and sometimes even hate, people we don't know. In South Africa, many of us have limited opportunities to step out of our comfort zones to engage with and learn from people who have very different backgrounds and life experiences from ours. “Because of this, we tend to view people outside our established groups as 'the Other', often dehumanising and even demonising them," says Mary. She adds that that is especially the case with offenders in correctional centres and even after they have been released.


Mary says ignorant stereotypes also prevent people who have been released from prison from accessing further education, obtaining employment and transitioning successfully into society to live stable, productive and fulfilling lives. This makes reoffending inevitable. “Having prison students and residential university students in the same classroom, learning with and from each other, challenges the destructive stereotypes of the threatening, unpredictably dangerous criminal and the snooty, ivory-tower-dwelling campus student.

“We need to change the perception of those behind bars and find ways of breaking down the barriers between the prison and the community – in our particular context, between the prison and the University. The Ubuntu Learning Short Course, in partnership with the Department of Correctional Services, is trying to do just that."

The course examined the theme, titled “Am I because we are? Exploring selves and communities", through the disciplines of law, literature, history and economics. Mary based this programme on similar prison education initiatives run by colleges in the United Kingdom and America, namely “Learning Together" at Cambridge University and “Prisonto-College Pipeline" at the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York. Besides Mary, the course facilitators were SU academics Chet Fransch of the Department of History, Daniel Roux of the Department of English, and Debra Shepherd of the Department of Economics.


“You tend to question yourself and the role you play in society – especially in here," says 24-year-old Awande Mshotana, a course participant from Brandvlei. “Through our many robust discussions in class, we did not only get to understand and learn about various academic disciplines, but we got to know and respect each other – both SU and incarcerated students." Awande, who already served five years of a 15-year sentence, is currently also studying LLB through Unisa. “We were all concerned whether we will keep up with the Stellenbosch students. And here we are today! This course has helped me gain another view of a group of young people who grew up different from how I did," Awande said at the certificate ceremony, held in October.

Caitlin Lee Kleynhans, student coordinator of the Ubuntu Learning courses, has been involved since the first brainstorming session to develop the format of the classes and determine the themes for the academic year. “I have decided to pursue a career in prison reform and prison education as a result of my participation here." She believes the course is life-changing for both the inside students and the outside students – the SU students are committing to be part of the change in how we address crime and treat those who have been incarcerated. “I cannot wait to provide more students with the same opportunities next year and for years to come," says Caitlin.


SU drama student Kelly-Robyn Morey says, “I was not sure what was in store for us before our very first class, but if we allow ourselves to learn from one another, we do become transformed. I came to deeply respect and understand my fellow students – the ones in the orange prison uniforms." For Sejal Debideen the experience was also life-changing: “One of the best parts of the course was getting to know the inmates for who they are. They are just people, using their time in a correctional facility to better themselves to become productive members of society. This initiative is centred around humanity and I would do it again in a heartbeat." Mary believes that the Ubuntu Learning Short Course will continue in 2020.

“Together with the course participants, we have started planning what we want next year's course to be like. What emerged is that we want to change our patterns of thinking and challenge our prejudices still more, especially stereotypes related to gender that contribute to genderbased violence. “We also want to add a component that focuses on the arts and artistic expression, and to expand the course to include more participants.

The hope going forward is to continue to break down the barriers between the prison and Stellenbosch University, also beyond the classroom. We want to be able to offer academic and social support to our incarcerated graduates once they leave prison, and hopefully also helping them to study further at Stellenbosch University," says Mary

More about short courses:

The Division for Short Courses was established in January 2007 at Stellenbosch University (SU) to coordinate the processes involved with running the short courses at SU, to standardise and support them. The presentation of short courses is an educational activity that takes place in the name of SU and it complies with quality requirements of the university, as well as regulatory institutions like the Department of Higher Education and Training. The short courses are presented in different fields, including management development, community interaction and development, public administration, education and law. The different SU departments manage the short courses themselves and all the courses are accredited by the SU in partnership with quality control systems and mechanisms that have been approved by the Board of Higher Education. Both the public and private sector can benefit from the courses.

PHOTO (page 14): Caitlin Lee Kleynhans, KellyRobyn Morey and Sejal Debideen who say that their experience of the Ubuntu Learning Short Course was insightful and enriching. 

Published in the Matieland. Read more