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The scourge of the COVID-19 pandemic and its impact on the poor, in particular, has once again highlighted the need for intervention in the country’s most vulnerable communities.

Poverty, unemployment and generally poor living conditions are among the challenges faced by these communities, particularly the densely populated informal settlements.

In Nelson Mandela Bay, the Walmer E area, in Gqebera Township, and Vistarus Area, near Missionvale, are among such settlements. A total of 180 families in these areas – 90 in each settlement – were among the latest beneficiaries of the Nelson Mandela University Convergence Fund, established to try to alleviate some of the immediate socioeconomic needs, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic.

The families were identified through ongoing engagement work between Mandela University, the Nelson Mandela Bay Municipality and the community, and received food parcels – which included sanitiser and face masks – during an engagement last month.

In a bid to find solutions to the challenges encountered in these communities, the Chair for Human Settlements at Nelson Mandela University, Prof Sijekula Mbanga, has been working with the Municipality and community leaders on a number of interventions towards addressing these in the Walmer E area, in particular.

Prof Mbanga says this area is plagued by a number of challenges, ranging from structural to socioeconomic issues.

“The area is very densely populated and was formerly used as a municipal dumpsite, where, as a result, there is said to be a concentration of methane gas, which has hindered further upgrading interventions in the area” he said.

“We have collaborated with the Municipality and community leaders, contributing our research and intellectual resources to the City’s efforts in that area. We have partnered with other University entities, such as the Earth Stewardship Science Research Institute (AEON-ESSRI) for the necessary research – working in line with the institution’s engagement philosophy of convergence.”

Prof Mbanga said the plan is to use that area of Walmer as a pilot for an innovative and sustainable urban renewal intervention of densely populated informal settlements within the Nelson Mandela Metropole.

“While government is making efforts in that regard, we need more direct intervention that focuses on evolving holistic human settlements and not just in terms of giving houses. We need to look at issues at household level – what are the residents’ capabilities, how can they be better supported to improve their living conditions?” he said.

“We need to transfer knowledge and capabilities of the University, emanating from the core business of the academy, to local communities, working with various partners, to test our own research findings and innovations.”

“So this will help us design our own intervention as a University, working with the communities in contributing to finding solutions to the prevailing challenges there, bringing together our intellectual and other resources, with the indigenous knowledge and ways of being of the community.”

“It is also our intention, as the University, to tap on our existing partnerships with non-governmental organisations and development agencies, such as the Nelson Mandela Foundation and Habitat for Humanity, to join hands and work on common spaces of high vulnerability, to bring long-lasting solutions to development challenges such as those evident in Walmer Area E, Gqebera Township and Vistarus-Rolihlahla area.”

“Through co-creation of solutions and knowledge, working across disciplines and sectors, we are destined to realise high impact in our efforts.”   

The contributions made to the families of the Walmer E and Vistarus areas are part of the ongoing work of the University’s Convergence Fund, which has to date raised in excess of R600 000. In the first cycle of disbursement, families and organisations caring for some of Nelson Mandela Bay’s most vulnerable received contributions in the form of monetary donations, food parcel distributions and the provision of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Working with the Missionvale Care Centre as an implementing partner, the Fund – through its Disbursement Committee – has been gearing its efforts towards short, medium, and longer-term relief in line with the University's posture of being in the service of society.

Donations to the Fund have been received in kind, with some staff and students dedicating their time to assist with packing the safe food parcels delivered to the families.

BSc Environmental Sciences student, Nicole Infante, was among the student volunteers who gathered at the Missionvale Care Centre to assist with the packing of the food parcels.

“I decided to volunteer at the MCC to give back to the community during these hard times. Many families are without at the moment and the one way I thought I could give back was by giving my time,” she said.

Another student volunteer, who declined being identified, said being part of the packing made them realise how much they often take for granted.

“When you are used to having things at your disposal, you take them for granted, not realising that someone wishes to have the same access to those things. It’s quite eye opening, I must say,” said the student.

The Fund is gearing up for its third disbursement cycle, which will explore support for community kitchens – five existing ones and 12 emerging ones.

“Community kitchens, which differ somewhat from conventional soup kitchens, have the potential for not only providing immediate forms of food relief,” says Dr Bruce Damons, who leads the Fund’s disbursement committee.

“These kitchens can also provide an opportunity for us to explore longer term solutions to hunger, contextually responsive skills development and/or enhancement, community-centred entrepreneurship and the use of community-owned spaces as locations for public education.”

Chair for Human Settlements at Nelson Mandela University, Prof Sijekula Mbanga, engaging residents of the Walmer E area ahead of the handover.

Parcel packing: Student volunteers assist staff with the packing of the safe food parcels at the Missionvale Care Centre, which is working with the Convergence Fund as an implementing agent.

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Ms Zandile Mbabela
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