By Ila Alberts and Ansela Sloman
The Ubuntu Learning Community (ULC) is an interdisciplinary short course offered to roughly twenty registered Stellenbosch students, and twenty incarcerated students at Brandvlei Correctional Centre, in collaboration between the University of Stellenbosch (SU) and the Department of Correctional Services (DCS). With a focus on exposing students to the law, economics, literature, and history, it is an exciting opportunity to foster relationships beyond bars, promote the reintegration of offenders into society and challenge prejudices that especially law students might have.
The short course was launched by Dr Mary Nel from the department of Public Law at SU. It all started in 2018 with a brainstorming session between SU students and incarcerated students after Dr Nel had been challenged by a colleague doing similar work in New York.
“My initial response was simply, ‘Nah, that would never work here’, but then I had to take a step back and evaluate why I was saying this. Who is going to do it if I don’t do it?” says Dr Nel.
Although COVID-19 hindered the course from continuing in 2020 and 2021, it is back in full force.
“The most rewarding part of doing this has definitely been the people… also being able to change in-students’ perspectives on who they are and what they’re worth,” Dr Nel said.
Hanna Casewell, a second-year LLB student who participated in the 2022 ULC course as an “out-student” (the term used to refer to participants from SU), agrees that one of the most beneficial parts of the course is building relationships with others in the class, getting to know each other on a deeper level and acknowledging each others’ humanity.
“I remember talking to [an in-student] about how in the first session [the in-students] were stressed we would judge them and not treat them like actual people, and we were afraid of encountering people in a maximum security prison,” she reflects.
“But to see how that moved to now knowing their kids’ names and plans for after they get released and […] actually developing good relationships with these guys is quite cool,” said Casewell.
Casewell adds that the experience allowed her to build empathy and gain insight into the “other side” of the justice system.
“I think definitely as a law student getting to experience the other side of the justice system […] is very interesting, and I think if I were to go into criminal law, it’s given me a lot of empathy for the people who get tried by the system […]. That’s what the experience has meant for me – it’s given me more empathy for people,” said Casewell.
Linah Jokazi, a third-year LLB student who also participated in this year’s ULC course, said that “being part of this unique course has given meaning and substance to Ubuntu. Throughout my academic career, the value of Ubuntu has been taught, but through this course, I’ve seen Ubuntu come to life in the relationships we built and the perceptions we broke down.”
Jokazi passionately encourages people willing to challenge themselves to participate in the programme next year.
“I would encourage people who are eager to learn about themselves, who are willing to engage with the philosophy of Ubuntu and truly see it in action, who want to be challenged and grow, people who want to form lifelong friendships. It’s an initiative that goes beyond the formal theoretical work; it goes to the root of what is to be human,” said Jokazi.
Kofi, who participated in ULC as an in-student in 2019, is now employed as ULC’s Integration Leader. He describes the programme as a mind-blowing experience which encouraged him to seek higher education.
“This programme literally changed the trajectory of my life. It made a huge impact on [me] in a place with very little hope and seemingly no path forward. This programme brought a light. It strengthened my resolve to want to better myself and widen my horizons through the path of acquiring higher education.” Kofi says.
Kofi says being able to interact with other students from the outside world, who were not judgemental of the in-students, made the course unique and impactful. He emphasises that the crucial part of the course for him was the relationships he could build with others in the classroom.
“I think being able to learn with other students from outside made the biggest impact on me – more than the course material that the lecturers provided. The biggest impact is the relationships one builds during the course – the human element and interaction […]. That’s how I met Caitlin [who participated as an out-student in the 2019 ULC programme], and just last week, I was able to attend her wedding […]. Without ULC, I would not have this comrade, friend or colleague in my life, and I wouldn’t be in hers,” said Kofi.
After his release in 2019, Kofi stayed in touch with Caitlin and Dr Nel. He was later appointed to his current position at ULC. He says there is nothing else he would rather be doing than giving back to the programme which was so beneficial to him.
“I grabbed the opportunity with both hands! It was my way to give back to a programme that I felt contributed so much to my path of acquiring an education […], so it was a no-brainer to be involved and make this my life’s work by contributing and giving back positively to something that is […] near and dear to my heart,” said Kofi.
Kofi says Nelson Mandela’s famous quote inspires him: “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.” For him, it describes the essence of his life’s story.
“Regardless of whatever situation life throws towards an individual, one makes the right decision by choosing the path of education, to broaden one’s horizon […] and improve one’s personal circumstances […] regardless of what has happened in the past. I am now equipped with the most powerful weapon – education. And change the world I will,” said Kofi.
The course will take place again in 2023. Any enquiries can be sent to Dr Mary Nel at email@example.com. Students from all faculties are encouraged to participate.