16 July 2021 | Story Leonie Bolleurs | Photo Supplied
Katlego Mpoihi says the Engaged Learning Festival equipped him with skills that changed his life in such a way that he could build his own business and provide employment for others. The festival is one of the initiatives of the Directorate Community Engagement to benefit the community, an initiative that also supports Mandela Day.

In celebrating Mandela Day, Bishop Billyboy Ramahlele, Director of the Directorate Community Engagement at the University of the Free State (UFS), believes that when we were born, all of us were clinching a fist holding something in our palms. “As we grew up, we discovered that what we were holding in our palms were our talents and gifts. We therefore exist to unfold our palms and share what we are holding. I challenge each of us to open our palms, stretch out our hands, and share what we are holding with those who are in need.”

It is also with this sentiment that the university, through its Engaged Citizenship programme – which is part of Engaged Scholarship – mobilises and trains communities to take charge of their own lives and development. Bishop Ramahlele describes engaged scholarship as using academic scholarship and professional expertise at the UFS with the intentional purpose to benefit the community. 

In the coming year, Community Engagement will pursue strategic partnerships with government departments at all levels to address the goals of the National Development Plan. The university will also continue to create opportunities for staff and students to engage in the development of communities. “We will ensure that all our staff and students contribute to building social cohesion in our communities by bridging economic, social, and cultural gaps within society,” says Bishop Ramahlele. 

Community Engagement is involved in more than 70 service-learning modules annually, and the university contributes no less than R9 million to set positive change in motion in the community. Some of the many programmes and organisations where an estimated 3 000 students spend at least 127 000 hours, include the Association for People with Disabilities, Bloemshelter, the Trompsburg Clinic and schools, and the Tshepo Foundation. 

Engaged Learning Festival, a beacon of hope

One initiative that stands out, is the annual Engaged Learning Festival

Bishop Ramahlele states that for the past five years, the university has organised and hosted the festival presented in partnership with non-governmental organisations, business, higher education institutions, and government departments.
“The festival, which is at the end of every year, runs over three days, with at least 50 different skills presented to about 1 500 attendants. In addition, the university trains no less than 400 people, including the youth, women, and the unemployed, in different skills that will enable them to create jobs for themselves through our ‘Building Social Cohesion through Enterprise Development Programme’,” he proudly adds. 

Despite the fact that the last festival was presented in 2019 due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the positive results of this event continue to impact people’s lives for the better. What comes to mind is the success story of 31-year-old Katlego Mpoihi, who attended the Engaged Learning Festival in 2016.

Mpoihi, who learned about the event at one of the Directorate Community Engagement’s training sessions in Thaba ‘Nchu, says before he left to attend the festival, he had no skills. However, he left his home dreaming about many opportunities for skills development.

“The festival did not disappoint me.”

“I knew nothing when I arrived there, nevertheless, in the three days of the event I learned furniture manufacturing skills, such as carpentry and upholstery that later allowed me to start making headboards, cupboards, pedestals, TV stands, and upholstering.”

“The Engaged Learning Festival changed my life. I feel better about myself now that I can stand on my own.”

“In the five years since I attended the festival, I registered my business, Golukisa Trading. After posting photos of my work on social media, the orders started to come in. With the profit I made, I bought more equipment and expanded my business to installing ceilings, tiles, floors, and walls.”

“Later, I was in the position to help others by creating employment and developing the skills of my staff. Two of the persons I taught started their own business,” says a successful Mpoihi who also managed to buy a car and land for himself.

Mpoihi later also attended training sessions on entrepreneurship, offered by the Directorate Community Engagement. “He is now playing an important role in training other youths and the unemployed during our workshops,” says Bishop Ramahlele. 

Giving back to ensure a better tomorrow for all

Although successful, he keeps on dreaming. “My biggest vision for the future is to open a factory where I can manufacture all types of furniture from scratch. I also see myself spreading my wings beyond the Free State borders, not only creating employment but also opportunities for people to open their own businesses,” says Mpoihi, who is planning on giving back in a big way. 

Was this not also what the late President Mandela had in mind – for us to recognise our individual power so that we can change the world around us?

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