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SU students and prisoners study together in Ubuntu project
Author: Daniel Bugan
Published: 10/10/2019

​​Students from Stellenbosch University (SU) and Brandvlei Correctional Centre near Worcester who participated in South Africa's first-ever interdisciplinary short course held in prison, received their SU-accredited competence certificates on Tuesday (8 October 2019).

Called the Ubuntu Learning Short Course, the initiative is the result of a social impact partnership between SU and the Department of Correctional Services. Funding was provided by SU's Division for Social Impact and the Faculty of Law.

The 14-week course, which brought together 30 SU students and inmates from Brandvlei Prison for three-hour classes once a week at the prison, started in March.

The aim of the course was to promote social justice and rehumanise learning through collaboration, community-building and connectedness. 

The course examined the theme “Am I because we are? Exploring selves and communities", through the disciplines of law, literature, history and economics.

The course facilitators were SU academics Doctors Mary Nel of the Law Faculty, Chet Fransch of the Department of History, Daniel Roux of the Department of English and Debra Shepherd of the Department of Economics.

The initiative is the brainchild of Nel, academic director of the Ubuntu Learning Community and senior lecturer of the Department of Public Law at SU, who was inspired by similar prison education initiatives run by colleagues in the UK and the US, namely “Learning Together" (Cambridge University), and “Prison-to-College Pipeline" (John Jay College of Criminal Justice, New York).

“The course managed to change the perceptions of those behind bars by bringing together people from diverse backgrounds to learn in a safe learning environment. Learning together freed our minds,“ said Nel.

She said their aim is to expand the initiative to other universities and to continue to break barriers and challenge stereotypes.

Andile Nelani, regional coordinator of education and training at the Department of Correctional Services (DCS), said correction is a societal responsibility and thanked SU for the role it played in correcting and rehabilitating the Brandvlei students.

“We as a correctional facility are not equipped or have the time and space to institute programmes such as this. We are therefore forced to become inventive with external partners such as SU. We hope that through this initiative we would be able to engage other society groups that would also be able to contribute to correction. We want this facility to become known as a theatre of learning instead of only a correctional facility," said Nelani.

Brandvlei course participant Awande Mshontana said the interdisciplinary nature of the course has equipped them to be historically aware and to raise persuasive legal arguments. Furthermore, the course has also helped them to unearth their hidden talents, attack patriarchy and upheld feminism.

“I believe responsible law-abiding citizens will come out of this (course)," says Mshontana.

Prof Thuli Madonsela, Chair in Social Justice at the Faculty of Law and former Public Protector of South Africa, delivered a word of encouragement.

She thanked Nel and her team for embracing the spirit of Ubuntu and nurturing humanity. She said knowledge does not necessarily change people, but “people do right when knowledge has transformed them."​

  • F.l.t.r. are Dr Debra Shepherd of the SU Department of Economics and one of the four course facilitators; Kaylan Weppelman and Kelly-Robyn Morey (both SU students); Siya Malashe, Brandvlei course participant; Dr Mary Nel of the SU Department of Public Law and academic director of the Ubuntu Learning Community; Corné Claassen and Keketso Jabari, both Brandvlei course participants.