Purpose – The purpose of this paper is to focus on how two rural-based universities in South Africa can contribute towards sustainable development especially in their immediate rural communities. It addresses the following questions: what conditions or policy frameworks exist that can engender a sustainable development trajectory? How can rural-based universities reconstitute themselves so they can become effective agents for sustainable rural development? Historically, because of apartheid policies, these and other black universities were on the margins of the knowledge production process and have not effectively engaged in real development activities that would meaningfully improve the livelihoods of rural dwellers. The research identified policy and legislative instruments and strategies that can promote a dynamic interaction with other institutions thus empowering and promoting sustainability. The aim of the paper is to raise awareness about existing possibilities at the disposal of these institutions.
Design/methodology/approach – The paper is the outcome of two research initiatives: one was a doctoral study by one of the authors, and the other was a study conducted at both universities. Both studies involved extensive interviews with a wide spectrum of stakeholders (local and provincial authorities, members of the business and university communities). Both also involved document analyses.
Findings – That rural-based universities are advantageously situated and possess a variety of characteristics that can enable them to effectively contribute to sustainable development. These include their strategic location within the rural communities; reinventing their mission orientation so as to enhance their research capacity; expanding their intellectual/entrepreneurial/social capital; and the establishment of strong collaborative relationships.