Jaci van Niekerk reflects on five years of community-based research which culminated in a practical, bilingual tool for the guidance of ethical community engagement in the northern Cederberg mountains. Community engaged research is a form of “engaged scholarship” – teaching and research which connects university resources with social, civic, and ethical problems (Boyer 1996).

The development of the tool originated in a transdisciplinary project known as “Co-creating Wild Foods Livelihoods in the Cederberg Mountains” (“Co-create Project”). Working closely with community members from the former farm, Vleiplaas, in the Agter-Pakhuis area and the Moravian mission station, Heuningvlei, researchers and post-graduate students from the Departments of Archaeology and Environmental Science at UCT, botanists, and wild food innovators sought to jointly identify livelihood opportunities linked to local peoples’ plant knowledge. The team utilised community-based participatory research, an approach which embraces the principles of equity, justice, and fairness and that endeavours to ensure that all project partners benefit from the research project.

During this exploration, which included participatory activities such as plant identification walks, cookshops, mapping exercises, and the construction of seasonal calendars, the team became aware of the existence of frequent interactions between local communities and “outsiders” which, at times, were problematic. Community members described how journalists and filmmakers would approach them to film or record their cultural practices or researchers would plunder their traditional knowledge, or in one instance – gather their DNA for a genomic study. An oft-reported grievance was that these visitors would leave once they had collected the data or footage they wanted, never to return or provide feedback in any form.

In response to this finding, the team asked residents of Vleiplaas whether they wanted to develop a document that would guide future interactions with external individuals or groups, be they researchers, members of the media, or tourists. It was hoped that such a document would lead to more equal partnerships and empower the community. The plan was to start with Vleiplaas and then, if there was interest, roll out the development of the community engagement guidelines to other Cederberg-based communities, adapting its contents to their particular contexts.

Two of the Co-create Project’s team members – Prof Rachel Wynberg and researcher Jaci van Niekerk from the SARChI Chair on the Bio-economy – had been involved in the development of the “San Code of Research Ethics” as well as the “Global Code of Conduct for Research in Resource-poor Settings”. The success and wide adoption of these two codes served to inspire the development of similar guidelines in the Cederberg.

Utilising theatre performance as a method, the team elicited aspects of unethical behaviour by researchers and members of the media. This fed into a series of workshops which were conducted in Afrikaans, the mother tongue of the participants. The following six values were identified as crucial to ethical, reciprocal, and equal partnerships: respect, fairness, honesty, care, dignity, and transparency. Fleshing out each of these values at workshops, community engagement guidelines for the Cederberg began gradually started to take shape.

The guidelines introduce the Vleiplaas community and their context, provide guidance on ethical interaction to researchers, journalists, filmmakers, and tourists; and contain a list of services which the community are able to provide upon enquiry. The completed pamphlet was translated into English and printed copies of both the English and Afrikaans versions were sent to the Vleiplaas community.

It is hoped that with these pamphlets in hand, community members will be able to communicate their wishes and expectations of working together with newcomers in a clear, accessible, and comprehensive manner. Going beyond their intended use as an “ethics code”, the pamphlets also act as a tool for pursuing economic opportunities. And besides guiding future interactions, the pamphlets are sure to act as the starting point for deeper discussions around meaningful, effective, long-term, and culturally appropriate community engagement.

Download the pamphlets here:









Boyer, E. 1996. The Scholarship of Engagement. Journal of Public Service & Outreach 1(1): 11 – 20.