‘I have always sought to go against the tide’

Posted on August 20, 2021

For Gernia Van Niekerk, helping other people has been a way of life since she was eight years old. Today, she is the Manager of Community Engagement at UP, and her journey feels like it has come full circle.

“I was very fortunate in that compassion is an inborn thing for me… I chose my career when I was about eight years old,” she said. “I saw things from an early age and asked questions – and almost all my questions seemed to have the same answer: ‘It’s the law’ or ‘Because the law says so’.  By the time I was 18, I knew the ‘law’ can also be wrong.”

Stemming from this desire to find justice and make the world a better place, Van Niekerk said she has always sought to go against the tide – even when it was strongly discouraged for women in particular to do so.

“I grew up in a time when achievement was for white men; they had authority in society and white women were subordinates, and as sub-citizens, we had no place or role in open society or the world of work. White women became part of the Labour Act in 1984. Prior to 1984, white women could only choose between becoming a teacher, nurse or social worker, and when you got married, you were forced by law to resign and your role then became a domestic one. This included child-bearing and seeing to the well-being of your family only. I wanted it all: a career and place in society of my choice, and I wanted to raise children and see to the well-being of my family.”

These are some of the challenges that she said she has dedicated her life to fighting; working to live boldly in her truth. One of her main weapons was working to upskill herself.

“I went to university with the dream that there I would learn to understand the world.  Intuitively, I knew that I had to find myself a place in society; it was not going to be handed to me. I acknowledged that what I regarded as wrong in society could not be fixed overnight or by doing a course or reading a book. I realised that life itself and the way we lived had to change. I knew from the start that I would get the strength, wisdom and support as I went along and I was not wrong in challenging the legal system and confronting social problems, unfair discrimination and bad laws.”

Located in the Department of Education Innovation, the Community Engagement portfolio at UP is responsible for the University’s social responsibility, student community engagement and upliftment projects that are done through the curriculum or as standalone projects.

It is here that Van Niekerk has been able to see her passion truly come to life. It has also provided the space for her to fine-tune her individual skill sets including her leadership skills.

“I have a stewardship leadership style. I am not sure if it is my nature or if it’s something I have learnt, but to improve the well-being of every person I am in touch with is the most important thing to me, whether it be students, colleagues or community members. I dream of a world where everyone experiences people and life in a good way.”

One of the primary challenges she faces is making the sometimes thin resources spread sufficiently across those who need them, and providing students with community engagement opportunities.

“Most of the students in need are from the so-called ‘missing-middle’ and many programmes are in place to support them. However, the homeless students on campus, who are from the most vulnerable group, are just 0.5% of the student population. They are from the socio-economic deprived communities in our society; the poorest of the poor, where one meal a day is a luxury and a weekly meal a privilege. Yet they still manage to qualify on merit to study at UP. The way I see it, the day they enter our gates, they become our responsibility.”

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