Environmental Challenges for a University in Transition: University of Natal, Durban, South Africa

The Declaration, Volume 4, Number 1 : October 2000  [Operations]

By Julia Botha

Durban is a thriving port on the east coast of South Africa. The largest city of the country’s second most populace province, KwaZulu-Natal, it is a microcosm of South Africa – a society in transition. Environmental conservation in this urban setting presents an enormous challenge. As more and more homeless people move to the city in search of work, the few remaining open spaces come under increasing pressure. Conservation is simply not an issue for a man who cannot afford to clothe and feed his family. To those who are more fortunate and privileged, conservation means, at best, the rhino and the elephant. Most have never even thought of conservation in the urban area. In their quest for development and “improvement” these “eco-vandals” continue, as they have for many years, to bulldoze the “bush” and replace it with neatly trimmed and manicured gardens full of exotic plants. To ensure that these alien plants survive and bloom, they are regularly sprayed with pesticides. Some of these plants are actually alien invaders, which, in the absence of the natural enemies of their countries of origin, are rapidly replacing what little remains of our natural biodiversity.

It is against this backdrop that the Durban campus of the University of Natal, which is located on a ridge between the first and third world areas of the city, faces the challenge of providing environmental leadership in the year 2000 and beyond. This article focuses primarily on efforts to protect university land, both in terms of long-term conservation and environmentally conscious new construction.


Looking back 70 years, aerial photographs from 1931 show Howard College, which was the first building of the Durban campus, surrounded by pristine grassland, looking over a huge coastal forest to the sea beyond. This would have been an environmental paradise. However, its value went unrecognized as the area gradually became built up. It is interesting that 50 years were to elapse before there is any record of a “Campus Conservation Committee.” This group of four people held its first meeting in April 1981.

For the next decade this Committee, later to become the Durban Campus Environment Committee (DCEC), was largely concerned with the natural, undeveloped environment and landscaping. The resident horticulturist did much to promote the use of, and thus increase awareness of, South African plants, although these were not always indigenous to the Durban area.


The idea of setting aside a portion of the Durban campus as a natural area emerged soon after the formation of the conservation committee. An appropriate area, initially called the Western Valley Reserve, was identified. Over the ensuing years, while the resident horticulturist and his staff battled to keep alien invader plants under control in the reserve, consideration was given to such issues as an appropriate name, defining the boundaries, and how the area should be managed. However, it was only in 1993, after the existence of the reserve was threatened by the development of tennis courts, that the University Council was approached to declare the area a nature reserve in perpetuity. The boundaries were finally formalized, a map and information board was erected, and the name “Msinsi” was chosen, after uMsinsi, the Zulu name for the beautiful Coral Tree (Erythrina lysistemon), which is found in the reserve.

The conservation of these seven hectares of grassland and regenerating forest has certainly been one of the environmental success stories on the Durban campus. It is home to a variety of birds (over 100 species have been recorded to date), as well as to other wildlife such as the banded mongoose (Mungos mungo). It is an educational resource for our students and local school children and is used as a recreational area (e.g. for walking and bird-watching) by residents in the area. Most of the maintenance work, such as the ongoing removal of alien invader plants, is done by a volunteer group – the Friends of Msinsi Reserve. This voluntary group, which has worked regularly every month for nearly ten years, is a joint initiative between members of the DCEC and of the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, a non-governmental conservation organization.

The maintenance of Msinsi Reserve’s grassland is particularly important, as there is very little natural grassland left around Durban. Fire is essential to prevent this area from being gradually encroached by bush clumps and turned into forest. The regular burn initially presented a major management problem. All the safety issues were dealt with, but local residents complained about smoke and blackened laundry. This was turned into an educational opportunity when the children of the local school were brought in to learn about environmental management.


It was during the late 1980s that a group of visionary conservationists developed the Durban Metropolitan Open Space System (D-MOSS). Recognizing that a few small, isolated natural areas in the city would not be sustainable, they proposed a plan of open areas linked across the city so as to provide corridors for seed dispersal and the movement of wildlife. A post-graduate student of the University of Natal, who was later to chair the DCEC, became involved in this process. Her research highlighted the important position of the University within the D-MOSS.

Apart from Msinsi Nature Reserve, other remaining natural areas of the campus are also an integral part of the D-MOSS link. Accordingly, in June 1997, the entire Durban Campus applied to be registered as a Conservancy with the KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation Services.

Campus landscaping has now been refined to the almost exclusive use of locally indigenous plants, i.e. those occurring naturally in the Durban area. This, together with limiting the use of poisons to the essential (such as on sports fields), obviously creates the type of habitat optimal for our local birds and other wildlife. This frequently draws favourable comment from visitors, who come to the University to view the harbour and city from the raised vantage point of the campus. Likewise, many staff recognize that they are privileged to work in an environment where the secretive Natal Robin (Cossypha natalensis) still sings! As the coastal region of KwaZulu-Natal is naturally forest and grassland, the effect created is not that of bright, garish exotic gardens. To satisfy those in search of something less “green”, colourful indigenous plants are used in the landscaping where possible. In addition, an exciting new architectural initiative is the decoration of buildings using bright, but tasteful and well-chosen, colours to offset the natural vegetation.

The existence of the campus Conservancy provides the platform for encouraging residents and land-owners in all the areas adjoining the University to pursue environmentally-friendly approaches. Some neighbours have already joined the initiative and are eradicating alien invader plants and using appropriate vegetation.

The western part of the campus is much less developed than the eastern, sea-facing land. Various areas here, particularly a wetland area, have been identified as important links in the D-MOSS and it will be important that we ensure their conservation during future development. Currently a pond is being constructed in this area to accommodate amphibians needing relocation during the construction of a road to the west.


It was towards the end of 1996 that the DCEC was to face its first real challenge. We discovered, about six months before the work began, that a new student residence was to be built on a piece of self-generating forest on the eastern part of the campus. Our concern, that no environmental planning preceded any developments on the campus, was conveyed to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor. He agreed to the appointment of a consultant to carry out an urgent Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The assessment contended that the area in question was “a significant habitat in the urban context.” It was also part of an important corridor in the Durban Metropolitan Open Space System. The Impact Assessment concluded that the proposed development should take place elsewhere.

Despite this, the University’s developers stood firm, indicating that it was impossible to make modifications to the site plans and still meet the required deadlines. The DCEC did not give up. We pointed out that the University’s Mission Statement declares that “The University is committed to the preservation and conservation of the environment and the natural resources of the region.” We researched previous planning documents for proposed alternative sites. We enlisted the help of the KwaZulu-Natal Nature Conservation Services, the parent body of our Conservancy and the environmental manager of the city.

Finally, the residence was built on an alternative site: an adjacent, old and under-used students’ parking lot. Not only were all the environmentally sensitive areas left intact, but the important trees within the actual building area were saved. A construction protocol was put in place to ensure protection of the environment. It detailed, for example, that the exact building area had to be demarcated and no access, nor dumping of rubbish, was allowed in adjoining areas. An environmental consultant monitored the entire process and the resulting residence was a landmark in terms of conservation of the surrounding natural environment. It epitomized a completely new mind set. It is fitting that this residence has just been named the Pius Langa Residence after the University’s first black Chancellor. In the future we will, in addition to protecting the natural environment, need to suggest other environmentally friendly approaches to developers, such as water-saving devices and energy-efficient lighting within the buildings themselves.

Other positive results flowed from this experience. A University of Natal Open Space System was proposed by the DCEC to overlay the Guide Plan that had been drawn up in 1991. Policy documents were changed to include a requirement for EIAs to be done before future developments. Coincidentally, the University’s Environmental Policy, which had been conceived by the DCEC eight years earlier, was finally accepted as University policy early in 1998.

Although these were watershed events, representing major progress, the challenges are by no means over. The possibility of new developments is ever present. Even though EIAs are now required, there is still a need for an overall assessment of the entire campus environment in relation to the opportunities and constraints regarding new construction. To this end, the DCEC recently commissioned a Strategic Environmental Assessment (SEA). To lower costs and to involve students in their own campus, this was conducted by post-graduate students from the School of Life and Environmental Sciences. The SEA identified four strategic issues that should be featured in future University plans; these are conservation and D-MOSS links, integrated catchment management, transparency in planning and aesthetics. Although there is now an Open Space Plan, it is too broad and needs to be refined to pinpoint areas of no development versus those requiring careful development. To assist in this, audits of the campus, which record vegetation on a GIS system, are currently underway.


Conservation of the campus environment is the work of a small, dedicated group comprising the DCEC. Interestingly enough, currently all but two members are drawn from professions other than environmental science – an architect, a geologist, a physiologist, a pharmacologist and an administrator. The University’s horticulturist continues to play an invaluable role. Unfortunately, there are still members of the wider university community, both staff and students, who remain unaware of campus environmental issues. Attempts are being made to address this and to involve a wider group of people. Annually, everyone is invited to participate in Arbor Week celebrations. This may take the form of tree planting, removing alien invader plants, clearing litter, or guided walks in the Msinsi Nature Reserve. A recent major boost in awareness and interest has been the labeling of many large trees across the campus. Funds generated from paper recycling were used to purchase the labels which, in addition to the botanical name, give the plant name in English and Zulu. Outdoor furniture, made from recycled plastic, is also in use in the campus gardens.


Over many years there have been efforts to promote an ethos of “Reduce, Reuse, Recycle.” These have met with variable success. The paper recycling programme, in the University’s newly-named Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine, has been a great achievement. Here sufficient funds are generated to provide small, short-term loans to needy students; the money is literally “recycled!”

In other areas of the University, recycling programs have not been sustainable in the long term. This has led to a new initiative by the University Administration to transfer their waste disposal contract to a company that will sort all waste. This company will reuse or recycle whatever they can and only the remaining rubbish will go into the city’s landfill. While this makes good sense in terms of environmentally friendly waste management, it will remain a challenge to encourage staff and students to separate waste at source to assist the process. Few South Africans have ever considered the possibility that they have some personal responsibility for their own waste. There is limited public awareness of, and even less public participation in, such activities as separation of waste at source and recycling.


There have been many successes to date. A viable nature reserve on the University of Natal campus has been one of these. It has been said, however, that in conservation, “any success is temporary and any defeat is permanent.” We will have to ensure that all the people benefit from, and recognize the value of, such an area.

One battle with University developers has been hard won with the placement of the new residence. But the struggle to ensure that future developments are environmentally friendly is by no means over. By virtue of its very position at the top of a ridge, the campus is the interface between some of the most expensive real estate in the city on one side, and a burgeoning third world community on the other. The key to preserving what little is left of our natural heritage is the education of these very diverse peoples. Whatever their background and education, most Durban residents remain environmentally illiterate. We need to educate the larger community in which the University sits, as well as our own students and staff. There is much work to be done. The struggle continues.

Julia Botha is Professor and Head of the Department of Pharmacology at the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine. With a deep interest in conservation, she has chaired the Durban Campus Environment Committee for the last five years. She has also co-authored “Bring Nature Back to your Garden” (eastern and western editions) which encourage people in South Africa to plant local species and to avoid using pesticides. Professor Botha can be reached at botha@nu.ac.za.

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