30 September 2022 | Story Gerda-Marié van Rooyen
Jagersfontein disaster
In response to the university leadership’s call to assist the community of Jagersfontein after the devastating effects of the sludge tragedy in September 2022, students and staff of the University of the Free State (UFS) jumped on board to lend a helping hand. The UFS has implemented various initiatives to assist in distributing donations of food and clothes.

Following the devastating effects of the sludge tragedy in Jagersfontein in September 2022, students and staff of the University of the Free State (UFS) jumped on board to lend a helping hand, to contribute clothes and bedding, or to share expertise. 

In response to the university leadership’s call to align the various initiatives to benefit the people of Jagersfontein, streamline the initiative, and maximise the impact of available resources, the ‘Give’ Donations Drive was coined.

UFS intervention

This intervention, coordinated and led by the Division of Student Affairs, followed after thorough scanning of the environment was done to analyse the needs and to identify UFS students who may be affected and in need of social support, says Mr Themba Hlasho, Executive Director of Student Affairs.

“I realised once again that people care for one another and they’re willing to put their money where their mouth is. These selfless acts stem from a place of sincerity,” says Dr WP Wahl, Director of Student Life. “This project reinforces the three core principles of the university: quality, impact and care,” he adds.

While donations are still finding their way to designated containers, more than 30 boxes of food, 140 sanitary products, and clothes have already been donated. Additionally, the UFS Housing and Residence Affairs donated 70 brand-new mattresses. These donations will be distributed to beneficiaries under the guidance of the provincial disaster management structures. Meanwhile, affected students are encouraged to seek help from the UFS social workers. They will assess each student’s situation holistically to ensure that the necessary help is given.

Making an impact

Affirming the university's goal of materialising theory into practical solutions, this opportunity offers real solutions to real problems. This people-driven solution includes 12 magister degree students in Psychology and 14 students from the Department of Social Work under the guidance of their lecturers to assist those affected. This includes the provision of trauma counselling to community members relocating from hotel accommodation back to the affected area.  To this end, psychologists from the Department of Psychology are on standby to provide additional assistance. No less than 171 students volunteered to help rebuild the rural town in whatever way needed. 

The UFS Centre for Mineral Biogeochemistry (CMBG) also forms part of the team focusing on the potential damage caused to the soil. Working alongside the Department of Forestry, Fisheries and Environment (DFFE), Dr Glen Taylor, Senior Director: Research Development, and Dr Mariana Erasmus, Deputy Director of the CMBG, together with other speciality departments, investigate the aftermath and effects of the disaster. “We analyse samples taken at the site and investigate the survival of micro-organisms below the sludge as it indicates the soil’s fertility, which will give us an idea of the degradation that has taken place, as well as the rehabilitation potential,” Dr Erasmus explains.

She continues by saying that at this stage, some of the biggest challenges from an environmental perspective is to prioritise the further spreading of the non-toxic but physically challenging sludge, and to restore the operations of the wastewater treatment works (WWTW). The CMBG, under the supervision of Dr Erasmus, will also be involved in the restoration of the WWTW.

Dr Wahl is delighted with the response received. “It is in our DNA to care. The university is part of a community and if the community suffers, we all feel the pain.” Mr Hlasho says part of the long-term strategy is to design a well-defined and sustainable intervention mechanism when dealing with similar cases in future.


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