University of the Western Cape: Student Learning through Community Participation

University of the Western Cape: Student Learning through Community Participation

Other images: 
Discussing community development and planning
Student-community engagement in Salt River, Cape Town
Community in the classroom presentations

Problems and Purpose

Post-graduate students enrolled in research methodology modules often have little engagement with real-world research. They learn the theory of research but are not exposed to field work experiences, including issues of ethical research. This participatory process allowed post-graduate students to visit two communities in Cape Town, observe and learn about their development challenges and then provide a considered input back to the communities they had visited. Through participatory learning students will increase their research and communication skills and vulnerable communities may befit from exposure and support.

This participatory field work training was supported through an ongoing partnership between University of the Western Cape’s Department of Political Studies and Participedia, to experiment with new forms of conducting social science research into new channels of citizen involvement in government—the extant ‘revolutionary transformation of democracy’. The visits were part of the ongoing pedagogical changes in the delivery of the Research Methods module to Honours students. The overall aim is to give students a more hands-on experience.



The Department of Political Studies has been teaching research methodology courses for Honours and Masters students for many years. While students are encouraged to conduct field-work for their dissertations, the taught research modules did not include practical fieldwork activities. In 2017 the department partnered with several South African NGOs, including Development Action Group (DAG), Democracy Development Programme (DDP), Isandla Institute and the Good Governance Learning Network to develop a Collaborative Programme in Applied Learning for Civil Society Practice (Civics Programme).  As part of this collaboration the Department partnered with DAG to restructure the delivery of the 2018 Honours research module.

The re-structuring of the module delivery approach was also been influenced by ongoing intellectual dialogue on the form of pedagogies for active, experiential and reflective forms of learning in research methods (Kilburn et al., 2014).  The social and political role of universities and practice of research in relationship to the state and society in South Africa (Lalu, 2012; Oldfiled, 2015) also had a bearing on the pedagogical framing of the research methods module.  Social scientists are increasingly calling for researchers to produce agendas and knowledges that do not merely address what is theoretically exciting or trendy here, but also cogently take account of the strategic and intimate politics that characterize contemporary notions of urban politics (Oldfield, 2015; Nagar, 2002 in Oldfield). Social sciences have managed to become a reliable and respected source of knowledge about the social realm, and owe part of their growth to their promise of providing concrete solutions to social problems. Logically, political science students cannot be stationed at the proverbial ‘ivory tower’ and imbibe theory alone, without appreciating the practical side of things. The field visits were thus meant to set a tone for young researchers who are able to relate better with community proponents of the channels of citizen involvement in government and begin reflecting on what is considered political by the communities that UWC works with.


Originating Entities, Funding and Participant Selection

The initiative to start a participatory research module was initiated by staff (Dr Anciano) in the Department of Political Studies at the University of the Western Cape (UWC) and was then rolled out in collaboration with a development NGO, Development Action Group (DAG). DAG worked with two partner organisations based in Khayelitsha and Salt River, Cape Town. The transport and food costs for the students and community members was covered with a part of the Participedia grant given to Prof Laurence Piper at UWC.

DAG is a non-profit organisation working with community leaders and organisations across South Africa to ‘unlock opportunities to access basic services, land, tenure rights and affordable housing’. According to a staff member who was involved in the field visits, they give socio-technical support to community organizations, that is, supporting them with skills and mentorship in building support from their communities; develop their organisational capacity among other forms of support.

In Khayelitsha and Salt River, the organization is implementing the Informal Settlement Engagement and Active Citizens Training Program, respectively, with the aim of equipping community leaders with leadership skills. The programs seek to 'turn the leaders into effective agents of change with the capacity of to increase effectiveness of residents’ involvement in government'.

There were several planning meetings held between the Politics Department and DAG prior to starting the fieldwork. DAG also had meetings with their community partners in Khayelitsha and Salt River. A PhD student was contracted to document the fieldwork process.

Students who participated in the research module were those who had enrolled for the course. Everyone on the course was invited to participate as were selected Masters students and departmental staff. Seven students, four faculty members and three DAG staff members visited Khayelitsha, PJS Informal Settlement.  13 students, one faculty staff member and two DAG staff members visited Salt River.


Methods and Tools Used

In order to encourage participatory learning Political Studies Honours students went on two field visits: to PJS section of Khayelitsha and parts of Salt River, respectively. In Khayelitsha, DAG facilitated the meetings with community leaders of PJS Section, and the ward Councilor. In Salt River, DAG facilitated a students’ tour of the suburb where DAG has been mentoring the leaders of the local Residents Association and also using ‘participatory design as a tool for advocacy and socio-spatial transformation’. This has been in response to the evictions from the area as a result of urban re-generation (gentrification). 

Prior to vising the research sites students attend a two hour seminar on research ethics and fieldwork. They were given readings on this topic prior to class engaged in a debate and discussion on how to conduct sensitive and useful fieldwork.

Once on the trip students were tasked to:

  • apply the theory they had covered in class in the previous week, particularly research ethics-related issues
  • observe ways in which residents engage with the government
  • respectfully listen to, but also ask questions of community members and political representatives and
  • identify potential areas of research.

The visit gave the students a brief first-hand experience of research practice and forms part of a process of preparing them for various fieldwork methods to be covered in the module.

The students had assignments to complete related to their site visits. Their first task was to write a reflective site visit report. Instructions explained that:

After your visit to a research/ community site you will need to write a reflective report. The report must reflect on what you observed in the site visit and how your observations can be framed as a problem for investigation. You can also refer to the readings provided on the site you visited. Once a problem is identified you must turn the 'problem' into a research hypothesis and research question. In the reflective report you must also look at the ethics of research, and reflect on this in respect to your site visit. Finally reflect on your personal experiences in visiting the site. Did it challenge any of your views, were you comfortable observing and listening, or not, and why?

Following the site visits and reflective reports students were put into groups and had to compile a presentation for a Community in the Classroom feedback session. The community members and DAG were invited to UWC for a day to discuss research issues in their communities.

Influence, Outcomes, and Effects

About the visited areas:

  1. Khayelitsha, Cape Town

Khayelitsha Township located 25 km of south-east of Cape Town, between N2 and False Bay, in the Western Cape. It was built, under the principle of racial segregation (Group Areas Act), in 1983, a ‘New Home’, under the pretext of decongesting Crossroads and accommodating all ‘legal’ residents (lived in area for ten years) of the Cape Peninsula living in squatter camps or existing townships. The Township also served as home to informal settlement dwellers on the Cape Flats, the majority coming from Old Crossroads to escape the violence by vigilante groups. The settlement is said to have begun with a tented town. Due to the immense influx of people, it is the second biggest Black township in South Africa after Soweto in Johannesburg.  Under the racial segregation principle, the apartheid government is said to have further planned to move all ‘illegal’ people to Transkei, a homeland created in the eastern part of the country. The plan faced fierce resistance from people living in existing townships near Cape Town. Fights broke out in townships between the government and residents. These fights caused more people to move to Khayelitsha. Khayelitsha grew rapidly after its proclamation.

During the 1990s, migrants from the Eastern Cape, previously deterred by influx control, arrived in search of work. By 1995 there were over half a million people living in Khayelitsha. According to the PJS section leaders of the informal settlement visited, the settlement started between 1987-9 and is one of the many that have been in existence for around 30 years. It has approximately 900 shacks, with thousands of occupants, located in what was planned as an open space by the City of Cape Town. The community in this informal settlement has to contend with challenges ranging from crime, poor service delivery including police lethargy towards combating crime in the area, poor sanitation, lack of space for their children to play among other small and big challenges. It is amidst all these challenges that the community leaders have to mediate in conflicts over shared toilets, establish some order in the community, organize community initiatives to fight crime, engage the city for services and alternative housing among other challenges. DAG and other Non-Governmental organizations are involved in different initiatives aimed at empowering the community. These range from skills and knowledge to effectively engage the City, solve community challenges and remodel the settlement in ways that enables bulk service provision by the city.

DAG runs the Informal Settlement Engagement program with the aim of engaging with community leaders, community members and City of Cape Town about their development plans. The interventions include facilitating community-led development solutions to leadership capacity building and meetings.

The intervention has resulted in regular community meetings being held, community leaders planning and working together with other community leaders, and Ward councilors. One of the major outcomes has been that of the PJS community developing a clear development plan, and highlighting challenges affecting them.

Notes from Khayelitsha

In Khayelitsha, the students met with community leaders and DAG staff working on the Active Citizens project. They were introduced to the organization’s work and history of the informal settlement, the students then informally conducted walking interviews with the community leaders that showed them around the settlement. The interviews were then followed by a de-briefing and interface with the councilor of the area. The interactions with the different stakeholders and observations assisted the Honours students to triangulate their data. The students were tasked to apply research methods theory, particularly ethics, learn as much about the area and identify potential areas of research. Below are notes from the field visit: 

  • Settlement as insurgent citizenship or claim of the ‘right to the city’?

The settlement was built both out of necessity and defiance back in the late 80s. The numbers of people grew in the area, children grew old enough to have their own households thus raising the necessity of more space. The influx of people from the rural areas continued and increased exponentially after transition to democracy in 1994, thus leaving the new arrivals, grown up children of formal settlement residents, seeing no other choice but to occupy the open space. This was after most of the backyards had been filled with informal structures as well.  The area where PJS informal settlement is was zoned for open spaces and other usages rather than residential.

One of the community leaders highlighted that one of the key questions that some residents wondered who determines what space is for what purpose? Why are citizens not included and listened to and involved in zoning? Potential research question are around the political interpretation of what an informal settlement mean to the residents vis a vis the way the City is planned. The invasion of a space that had not been designated for housing came with different challenges. One such challenge is that of sanitation, there has been struggles to force the city to provide basic services such as water and toilets to the community toilets. Currently, between 6 and 8 households use one toilet. Conflicts have arisen among residents in relation to the use of the toilets, cleaning and between the residents and the City pertaining to materials used, their positioning among other things. Key roles of community leaders has been conflict resolution among residents while framing the grievances that the community has with the City and agitating for improved service delivery. 

  • Invited spaces not serving the community, created spaces ignored by authorities

According to the community leaders, PJS informal settlement dweller participate in invited spaces such as ‘IDP meetings convened by ward councilors’. According to a Councilor Induction handbook put together by South African Local Government Association (SALGA), Councilors are responsible for facilitating communication between residents and the city. Integrated Development Plans (IDP) are the development plans that mainly speak to service delivery which is the main role of local government.  PJS community leaders describe the IDP meetings as being convened by councilor(s) held to ‘informing people about budgets rather than getting their inputs’. As an invited space, the content and process of the meetings is wholly decided upon by the conveners. The councilors rarely attend meetings convened by the citizens. However, the councilor for the ward within which PJS is located, is also a resident of one of the many informal settlements in Khayelitsha.

  • Development negatively affected by political party politics

The Councilor stated that political party politics has affected the delivery of services to the residents of the informal settlement. There are decisions that he makes just to tow the party line, regardless of their implications for development and service delivery. Responding to a questions by one of the participants on how the Democratic Alliance (DA) and African National Congress (ANC) were collaborating to attend to service delivery challenges, said that politics takes precedence. What remained unclear was the actual impact that politics has had in the provision of services, particularly ‘re-blocking of informal settlements’ which is aimed at creating settlements which allow for provision of bulk services. It was also unclear how much the party politics affect coherence and effective citizen involvement in government. The councilor argued that the local and provincial government were not paying attention to the informal settlement thus sticking to redundant ready-made plans for providing housing. 

  • Poor collaboration between NGOs and City

While community leaders applauded the work of NGOs which had facilitated effective engagement between them and the city, the Councilor expressed frustration with some. The community leaders cited the work of organizations such as the Social Justice Coalition in successfully advocating for the building of toilets in the area. One would expect smooth cooperation among development actors attending to the precarious conditions that the residents in informal settlements are in. The Councilor revealed that there were instances where the NGOs would directly work with communities without involvement of ward councilors. There are various issues that arise from this concern from the Councilor, around the entry point for NGOs, into an area, and how cooperation between key development actors should be governed, among other key questions.

  • NGOs should prioritize meeting basic needs?

Community leaders drew the attention of students to the challenges met by NGOs that are not providing material support to the community. The community, they argued, is struggling with basic needs and finds it difficult to engage on development (soft) issues like leadership training. The question is therefore how NGOs can link socio-economic needs to civic and political skills needed for the effective citizen engagement with the politics. The approaches used by the NGOs to build substantive citizenship thus come to the fore.

  • Village democracy (consensus) at work and Community leaders’ influence

The councilor claimed that when it comes to engagement with informal settlements, ‘village democracy’ is the method that works. However, the community leaders in these areas are so powerful that they can make or break development plans—determine how the community engages with the City. An example that he gave was that community leaders can refuse to move from a particular area as they want to keep the status quo. This claim raises many questions, including what motivates such a narrative and its veracity. It should be important to establish what powers the community leaders have and how they exercise that power in relation to citizens’ involvement in government.

Concluding remarks delivered by the councilor were telling and worthy of note. He contested the routine of government coming to the residents with ready-made solutions instead of engaging them for co-creation of solutions. This challenges researchers to adjust their epistemological and ontological lenses in investigating ways of solving the myriad of challenges faced by residents in settlements such as PJS in Khayelitsha.


  1. Salt River, Cape Town

Salt River is a suburb of Cape Town, located near Table Bay, to the east of Cape Town's central business district. It is noted for its association with the clothing and textiles industry. The residents in this mixed land use area (industrial, residential and commercial) are currently affected by city renewal efforts (gentrification) which has seen increasing land and property values in many instances resulting in rent control measures being unable to protect the poor and working class tenants.

According to DAG, the rent control measures introduced in the 1950’s, adjusted in 1976 to minimise evictions, became unaffordable when land and property values began increasing. The result has been a growing number of market-led evictions. There has been an increasing case of state evictions from Woodstock and Salt River, particularly from old buildings declared uninhabitable by the state, such as Gympie street. The options available to these households have unfortunately been limited to either a Temporary Relocation Area in Blikkiesdorp or Incremental Development Areas along the N7. There are now cases where these households have returned to the inner city, but left destitute as they now live on the streets.

DAG works with community members, businesses, government officials, academic institutions, and other partners in Salt River, to explore new approaches towards inner-city affordable housing that can help expand opportunities for lower-income families and individuals in Woodstock. DAG’s approach includes exploring participatory design as a tool for advocacy and socio-spatial transformation. The organization is thus working to empower community organizing through the local Residents Association. The students took a tour of the area, with a DAG staffer and Residents Association Committee member. The following are some notes from what was observed: 

Notes from Salt River:

  • DAG mentoring Salt River Residents Association

Salt River’s Residents Association had, over time, become inactive because of different reasons thus depriving residents a strong voice to effectively engage with the City, business and new land developers. DAG has begun a process of rejuvenating the residents association with the aim of ensuring that residents mount robust advocacy for observance of by-laws and or creating new ones to stifle the negative effects of gentrification. The Residents Association Committee member engaged by the students noted that, among other challenges,

‘currently, residents are disunited, disorganized but facing similar challenges such as cultural disruption, direct and indirect encroachment of public spaces as a result of changes in land use, unruly landlords with prohibitive rents’, (Residents Leader)

One of the key examples of land-use clashes pertains a beer brewery and bar, recently set up, neighboring a school, a church and residential flats. The residents have raised morality and religious issues against the modification of an old factory into a beer brewery. The concerns have fallen on deaf ears and the brewery is operational. Patrons of the new place are said to be parking in ways that leaves residents of the surrounding areas without parking.

  • Apathetic residents amidst challenges

The residents were said to be apathetic thus affecting the power of the Residents Association. There are several questions that could be asked in view of the above claim. Is the Residents Association, in the form still though of by DAG and Residents leaders, still relevant to the new residents of Salt River? What methods of engagement are effective in organizing a gravely disempowered community? Why are the youths not enraged/engaged enough to protect their community? What roles are religion and culture playing in shaping the residents’ response to the disruption of their lives? In addition to local cultures and religions, the area received thousands of foreign nationals who were affected by Xenophobic violence in the past, thus adding different dynamics into the cultural composition of the area. These and other questions are some of those asked by the students to the community leaders, during the field visit.

  • Race and gentrification

Some Salt River residents have accused the City of ‘racism in reverse’ that is comparable to the Group Areas Act that saw non-whites being moved to the periphery of cities. Some of the students raised questions on the linkages of the displacement to racism. The questions were on whether capitalism sees colour or profits at whomever’s expense. Researchers still remain seized with the relationship between business (capital), state and society, and race relations in South Africa. 

Analysis and Lessons Learned

Through the site visits, the Research Methods module gave the budding researchers their first taste of fieldwork. Overall both the students, community members and DAG were pleased with the outcomes of the site visits. DAG have indicated they would like to continue the partnership with UWC. A new, more intensive programme will be implemented in 2019, linked to broader participatory teaching and learning, beyond only methodology training.

Below is feedback (lessons) from students and other participants:

  • 'Being in the field with colleagues yielded a very refreshing experience. It enabled sharing of observations and bounce ideas off each other, stimulating collective active learning'.
  • 'I was part of the group that travelled with Dr. Anciano to the community of Salt River for our community visit. Thinking back on the actual visit as a pedagogical exercise highlights several positive sentiments that I have harbored toward that kind of exercise in research and teaching it as a course. The first aspect of the field trip that proved to be off value was the field trips taking place in two separate groups. The feature of groups is maintained, and so is a diversity of opinions. The (equal) split of two groups to two sites allowed for the feedback and subsequent discussion through the presentations to be of substance. As evidenced by the members of the community, the analysis was meaningful to their lives and their quest for social empowerment. The second highlight of the way in which the field trip conducted was the range of research questions that resulted from the differences in the two groups. What this meant was that the spectrum of research questions was broad as a result of the varied opinions within two markedly different circumstances. I am able to complete my experience of the field visit through the thoughts and perspectives of my contemporaries, as their inputs were of high value. Overall the entire field trip experience (as I conceptualize it from the trip itself to its research implications) was wonderful. I have no postgraduate experience but coming from two different tertiary environments I can say with confidence that my experience at the University of the Western Cape will prove to be one of my best if the standard is maintained'.
  • 'In 2018, even though I was done with my coursework, Dr Anciano invited me on several fieldtrips she organised for her Honours/Masters students. These fieldtrips allowed students exposure to real fieldwork and the problematisation of very real social science issues. This method of bringing to the front the dynamics of social science research included exposure to stakeholders outside of academia. In the concluding presentations of the students involved there was a clear understanding of how to go about doing research in this fashion. This understanding developed by the students concerned would have taken much longer to achieve if the module was restricted to the classroom. The students also walked away with a much greater appreciation of research around social justice issues- particularly underdevelopment and gentrification respectively'.
  • 'The thought of having to have to conduct research can be very daunting, whether it is research that does not need one to go out into the field and conduct interviews, observations etc. or it is research that requires one to have to take the initiative to have to find participants and interview them. If one does not have the right tools and a good teacher that will be able to guide you swiftly and sufficiently throughout your research processes then one will most likely be restricted when trying to conduct research. We, as the class of 701, recently went on a site visit, one half went to a community in Khayelitsha called PJS, and the other half went to Salt River, a community in Woodstock. The aim of us going to these communities was to gain some experience of conducting research, what it means to conduct research, i.e. the ethics of conducting research, when to ask questions, and most importantly how to ask the questions. In addition, after we visited the communities, we had to present back to the community members about our experiences and observations. What this has taught us is that research can be continuous process, especially when there is practical engagement involved'.
  • This form of teaching (complementing theory with practical field work) is different but practical. Instead of having to formally engage with the lecturer every week and only discuss theoretical aspect of research and discuss, without practicing the practical part of research. It gets the student interested in the work that they are doing, and could sway the perception of research that the student had and could have in the future.
  • DAG and its partners also learned lessons from field trips and benefited from students’ perspectives. According to a staff member who participated in the field visits, “Students gave critical perspectives on the organisation’s work; which enabled us to identify areas needing improvement, such as effective communication with stakeholders”.


One concern worth highlighting is that community leaders in Khayelitsha and DAG staff raised a concern that the area had been ‘over-researched’ by university students, organizations and other actors, without any tangible returns. The community leaders challenged students to remain grounded on the community realities, both as academics or other roles they may assume in future. This seemed to slightly unnerve the students but led to the asking of important questions around how academic work can effectively impact lives in the communities.

Secondary Sources

Kilburn, D., Nind, M., & Wiles, R. (2014). Learning as researchers and teachers: The development of a pedagogical culture for social science research methods?. British Journal of Educational Studies62(2), 191-207.

Lalu, P. (2012). Still searching for the ‘human’. Social Dynamics 38(1): 3–7.

Oldfield, S. (2015). Between activism and the academy: The urban as political terrain. Urban Studies52(11), 2072-2086.


History of Khayelitsha taken from

Information about Salt River was taken from different sources such as the informal interviews with residents leaders during the field visit, media articles on the ongoing evictions (such as, and websites of NGOs working in the area such as Ndifuna Ukwazi and DAG.

Development Action Group:

Case Data


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University of the Western Cape
Robert Sobukwe Road Belville
7535 Cape Town , WC
South Africa
Western Cape ZA


Start Date: 
Wednesday, January 31, 2018
End Date: 
Wednesday, May 30, 2018
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University research students
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Other: Funding: 
A participedia grant assisted with costs
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Development Action Group, South Africa
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