College of Humanities

Dr Joseph Rudigi Rukema
Dr Joseph Rudigi Rukema

A Journey of Trials, Tribulations and Triumphs: From Car Guard to UKZN Top Researchers’ List

Twenty years ago, senior lecturer in the School of Social Sciences Dr Joseph Rudigi Rukema began his journey as a refugee from a war-ravaged eastern part of the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) before making his way to the University of KwaZulu-Natal (UKZN) to study towards his Honours degree in Public Policy.

Rukema worked as a car and security guard to make ends meet but also to pursue his dream of studying further. “My journey as a car and security guard was rewarding and provided me space to reflect on my future. My first job as car guard was in Morningside, Durban. I had no permanent site; friends would call me when someone could not make it on that day. At the time, one could make decent money, be able to pay rent and other personal expenses,” he said.

After a few months, Rukema’s friend found him a permanent car park in Umhlanga Rocks to work from. He made enough money to pay rent and support his siblings who were scattered across the African continent due to the war in the DRC.

Rukema realised that being a car guard was not sustainable, given its unpredictable nature and financial instability. His only dream was to further his studies to the level of PhD as he strongly believed that education was key to his success.

Through a chance visit to UKZN, Rukema met with Cameroonian Dr Njoya Ngetar of the School of Agricultural, Earth and Environmental Sciences. “I could not speak English properly. I had to communicate with Dr Ngetar in French. I told him of my desire to further my studies. He gave me all the necessary information and introduced me to academics in the Department of Political Sciences, who advised me to perfect my English to apply,” he said.

A determined Rukema enrolled for an English programme for refugees that was offered by an NGO. He attended English lessons for two weeks while his friend worked as a car guard in his place. At the end of the course, he started reading extensively and after a month, Rukema went back to UKZN. “My English skills were assessed and I passed, so I applied and was accepted into the programme.”

Despite studying at UKZN, Rukema still continued with his work as a car guard. He managed to work a few hours a day and attend classes. “Working in Umhlanga was far away and was fast becoming demanding,” he said. “I resigned and found a security job instead. I would work night shift, starting from 6pm to 6am. After work in the morning, I would walk from Durban North, through Overport, to attend class. After class, I would go home, sleep for an hour then go to work. It was extremely challenging, but I was committed to both my work and studies.”

Rukema then approached the Dean of Social Sciences Professor Johan Jacobs with his challenging circumstances. “Professor Jacobs was kind as he discussed my situation with the department and I was offered a part-time job in the Political Sciences library,” he said. “He even awarded me with a scholarship to complete my studies. I resigned from my security guard work and focused fully on my studies. I have never looked back, and I am grateful for the kindness and opportunities showed to me by the University over the years.” 

Rukema is now featured regularly in the University’s Top 30 researcher rankings, which comprises researchers who have accumulated the most author units for publications in the Department of Higher Education and Training’s accredited, peer-reviewed journals.

In 2012, he finally achieved his dream to graduate with a Doctoral degree in Social Policy Studies. He is the author of 65 publications, has edited five books, and has graduated nine PhD, 24 Master’s and 34 Honours students. He has examined 15 PhD theses and 60 Master’s dissertations. Since his appointment as Senior Lecturer in 2015, Rukema has produced 3 500 productivity units.

His social and economic background motivated him to develop a passion for social entrepreneurship and the spirit of community development, which culminated in him initiating numerous community projects.

Rukema founded a Community Centered Higher Learning Institution Sub-Saharan Africa University/Universite de l’Afrique Sub-Saharienne (DRC), for which he is the Founder and President of the Management Council. Currently, it employs 105 full- and part-time staff.

He also initiated the student-led United against Gender Based-Violence (UAGBV) Organisation at UKZN, established as an outcome of the third module in Sociology that he taught, which focused on gender construction and inequality, including gender-based violence.

After successfully completing the module, he motivated students to start the organisation as a response to the growing level of gender intolerance. He assisted students to draft the organisation’s profile and set up an administrative structure. Given that it was student-led, many left after completing their degrees and thus Rukema is planning to revive the organisation with a more sustainable approach.

He also has another project underway in Durban called the ‘African Centre for Informal Learning and Entrepreneurship’. The project will assist the unemployed and those with no formal education to informally acquire knowledge and skills by linking them to existing businesses with the possibility of becoming gainfully employed by them. Those who aren’t offered a position can be organised into formal associations.

“I owe my achievements to my mother, my uncle Cosmas Munyarugo, my Grade 3 teacher Kasongo Ilunga, my Master’s supervisor Professor Geoff Harris and my wife Dr Beatrice Umubyeyi. I am grateful to Professor Johan Jacobs for his support and encouragement, and to the entire UKZN community and leadership for making this space a vibrant one for personal growth. I owe my success to my colleagues, students and South Africans for welcoming me with open arms. My triumphs reflect a rainbow nation,” he said.

Rukema is a visiting scholar at nine universities. His network initiatives include organising collaborative publications among scholars across the African continent, which culminated in six publications with the framework of bringing African scholars to exchange knowledge through collaborative publications. He has also attended international conferences to present thematic, working and position papers.

He is the former Associate Editor of the East African Journal of Science and Technology and is currently the associate editor of the Anthropology and Ethnology Open Access Journal (AEOAJ). Rukema is the regular proposal reviewer and panel member of the National Research Foundation (NRF), is a regular reviewer of numerous journals, has organised numerous conferences across the African continent and has delivered many keynote speeches.