Rhodes Reaches Out for Socio-Environmental Change

The Declaration, Volume 1, Number 3 : September – December 1996  [Partnerships]

Recovering from South Africa’s political turmoil and social transformation requires the participation of all sectors-academia, government, industry, and the community-in order to reconstruct and develop a stable, healthy environment. Universities play a pivotal role both in uniting stakeholders and in educating for sustainability through their teaching, research, environmental management practices and outreach efforts. Environmental educators at Rhodes University (RU) in South Africa have embraced this responsibility and privilege with enthusiasm.

Environmental education for transformation

South Africa has experienced severe political, economic and ecological turmoil. In response, the Government of National Unity has launched the Reconstruction & Development Programme. Universities across the country strive to contribute to the plan’s implementation and success. Rhodes University focuses on educational partnerships for environmental literacy as a key to positive change and lasting improvement.

The Eastern Cape, where Rhodes is located, is the second poorest province in the country. The local environment is harsh, with naturally poor soil fertility and dry conditions exacerbated by decades of mismanagement, making farming difficult. There is little industrial development due to lack of both water and markets. Thus, unemployment rates are high, crime is rampant, and many children are reduced to begging in the street to survive.

“As an educational response to such socio-ecological problems, environmental education (EE) lends itself very well to contributing to transformation processes in South Africa,” explains RU’s Dr. Eureta Janse van Rensburg. EE supports the broader goal of environmental literacy, building capacity to make decisions and take actions for environmentally sustainable development. “The team of environmental educators at RU work through partnerships with other institutions, including NGOs [nongovernmental organizations], industry, and broader communities,” she says.

Industry collaboration

RU took the lead in EE at tertiary institutions in the region in 1991 by establishing Africa’s first Chair in Environmental Education with sponsorship from the Murray & Roberts (M&R) Holdings company. Dr. Janse van Rensburg has been the incumbent to the chair since its inception.

This initial university-industry partnership and the ensuing work of the Chair proved successful, but demand for academic support for EE outstripped capacity. To meet the growing need, RU partnered with Gold Fields (GF) of South Africa, a gold mining company, to launch the “Gold Fields-Rhodes Participatory Course in Environmental Education.” Additional support from Gold Fields in 1997 will fund the appointment of a director and assistant to the Gold Fields EE Service Centre. These individuals, together with the M&R Chair and a junior research assistant, will staff the Rhodes EE Unit.

“The relationship between an environmental initiative and industry-key contributors to environmental degradation and often protectors of the status quo- can be a questioned,” acknowledges van Rensburg. “However, in a country such as South Africa, where there is not a large wealthy middle-class to support environmental initiatives financially, and where the past government had little interest in supporting them, partnerships with industry become an important option. Such partnerships, however, need to have integrity,” she notes. “This is only possible if there is no prescription from industry about the contents of the EE projects to be launched in the partnerships.”

Willie Jacobsz, an administrator at GF explains the company’s support for Rhodes and community environmental education saying, “It is important that EE be based on both sound academic principles and practical reasoning. Rhodes is in touch with the real world and has significant experience with EE at the grassroots level. In addition, as an institution it has made the environment its niche across faculties which is conducive to a much more holistic and multidisciplinary approach.”

Educating corporations

Janse van Rensburg notes that university-industry partnerships should also “aim to contribute to transformation within industry.” To this end, RU is now developing EE courses for industry. The objectives, Janse van Rensburg explains, “are to introduce middle and senior management to the need for and nature of EE, to involve trade unionists, and enable corporate trainings to include EE.”

The idea has taken hold at Gold Fields which is in the process of implementing an ambitious EE program for all of its employees-a major task with a staff of 80,000. “We have learned a lot from our interaction with Rhodes and the EE community,” says Jacobsz. “We like to think that we are now a real part of it.”

According to Jacobsz, GF’s partnership to support development of EE endeavors in the university has influenced the corporation to such an extent that it is changing the way it operates. “Universities are like hot-houses where innovative new knowledge flourishes,” he notes. “We support them because it makes good business sense. Already a number of our corporate EE staff have been through the Rhodes course. It helps the company as much as it helps the environment in which we operate.”

EE linked to bottom-line

The corporation and the environment “are inextricably linked,” Jacobsz points out. “Mining is by nature destructive. We also live next to or near our own mines. If our environment goes down the tubes it will pull us with it,” he says. “Prosperity, health and wealth are a product of the environment in which we operate. If we can do something to ensure that the environment has a better chance of pulling through, we should seriously consider it.”

Jacobsz also notes that “it makes good bottom-line sense to prevent rather than to cure.” The EE pedagogy supports this. He gives environmental legislation as an example. “Legislation related to mining is bound to get tougher as time moves on, and in the future we will be accountable to repair any damage that we cause now. Our approach is proactive, to be a few steps ahead of the law in the positive sense,” he explains. “By leading the pack we are setting standards and helping to formulate and inform new legislation.”

Focusing on human resource development

The education programs for industry will be informed by a model developed over the past several years in the RU certificate courses for EE practitioners. A key focus of these courses, explains Janse van Rensburg, is to build the capabilities of EE practitioners who work at the grassroots level.

The course has already achieved success in developing important human resources. The partnership with the Natal Parks Board, a para-statal conservation agency, is a clear example. According to Janse van Rensburg, many of the Parks Board graduates were previously unable to be promoted in the agency because of insufficient primary and secondary education. This prevented them from registering for conventional conservation diploma courses, even though some had nearly 20 years of experience. Most had no formal training in EE whatsoever.

Poor skills in English, the medium for much instruction in South Africa, also contributed to Parks Board employees’ inability to further their qualifications. Upon successful completion of the RU certificate in EE, which was conducted in a combination of English and Zulu, students began to receive recognition from their employer. As a result, many have been promoted. “This is important in the context of both national reconstruction and development for historically disadvantaged students,” stresses Janse van Rensburg. “Many graduates are also moving into new positions better suited to their EE skills” she notes.

Partnerships for sustainable development

Doc Shongwe, a provincial coordinator and joint initiator of the GF- sponsored courses explains the need. “The benefits of an environmentally literate workforce are long-term for the nation. Universities have no role in society if they still want to cling to their old-fashioned ‘ivory tower’ mentality. South Africa needs movers, not grand-standing. Partnerships are essential for meaningful contribution to the development of South African society.”

Janse van Rensburg.concurrs. “We need to reach out,” she says. “This partnership between RU, industry [Gold Fields] and para-and non- governmental bodies has made a meaningful contribution to reconstruction and development for environment through education.”

A flexible program of study

The certificate courses, offered on a regional basis, were initiated originally to address the educational needs of EE officers employed at the Gold Fields-sponsored environmental education centers throughout the country. “The EE officers were expressing good ideas and made significant contributions of a practical nature, but they were limited by a lack of theoretical background,” Shongwe explains “They needed exposure to both general education and environmental education pedagogy and philosophy.”

In the four years since its inception, the course has expanded its constituency. Nearly 60 practitioners, ranging from conservation and field officers, community development workers to teachers, enroll annually to explore the latest EE theories, discuss environmental problems, and research useful EE resources in the context of their own practice and in dialogue with others. Using a “semi-distance education” format, the courses follow adult education principles, explains Janse van Rensburg. Many activities are lead by students to build their skills and utilize their considerable experience in the field.

The program has flexible entry levels and provides individual support to participants through regional instructors. Courses cover four main themes: environment and the environmental crisis; environmental education as response to the crisis;theories of education, development, and valuation; and curriculum, program and resource development. Students are evaluated on the basis of progress in conceptual development, demonstration of practical skills, and active participation.

“We encourage exploration of theoretical ideas in the context of practice,” says Janse van Rensburg. Methods of instruction include workshops, tutorials, individual and group assignments, oral presentations, and project development. Participants are exposed to range of educational strategies including interpretive trails, games, seminars, and field visits.

According to Shongwe, the structure “allows more interaction between instructor and participant. It also encourages participation-the accountability for learning lies with the student,” he says. “Most important, the training is linked to what the participants are doing at their respective places of work, thus it directly affects and enhances performance on the job.”

Personal and professional outcomes

Kim Le Roux, a recent graduate of the RU/GF course, confirms Shongwe’s point. She stresses both personal and professional benefits to the program. “I developed more confidence in myself and in my work skills by presenting before a large group, being a tutor for fellow students, and learning the theoretical background to EE” she says. “Because participants don’t have to leave their jobs in order to study, the course informs the work we do directly. It also promotes critical thinking and helped me develop a supportive network of colleagues.”

Stephen Roberts, a Natal Parks Board participant with a degree in communication and anthropology, also finds multiple benefits. “As EE has no real professional acknowledgment in South Africa, the course gives it status,” he explains. “It also exposes EE practitioners to relevant social theory and creates employees who are more critical of approaches to EE. This helps ensure that programs are up-to-date with modern thinking and gives participants the confidence to advise others on suitable approaches, as we now have the academic background. We are in positions to share our knowledge with a lot of people who can not go on the course, hence we can further EE significantly.”

Roberts also indicated the significance of a holistic, integrated approach. “My level of understanding increased dramatically,” he says, “and I came to realize how communication and anthropology theory ties in with environmental education.”

Expanding outreach

The course format and orientation has proven so popular that it has been offered in Zanzibar in partnership with the Zanzibar Department of Environment. In addition, the EE certificate course was expanded to Zimbabwe where it is offered in partnership with SPECISS College.

Rhodes also offers a masters degree in Environmental Education. Students come from across South Africa, Namibia, Zimbabwe, and in 1997 from Kenya and Malawi as well. Their diverse disciplinary and professional backgrounds include education, geography, biology, civil engineering, nature conservation, museums and NGOs.

“Given the socio-ecological environment RU operates in, it is imperative for the university to share its expertise and other resources to improve the local and regional environment and protect the fragile natural resource base,” explains Janse van Rensburg. “In this process we obviously need to involve the two campuses in Grahamstown and East London as well as the wider Eastern Cape community.

This includes farmers, the poor and unemployed, the few local industrialists, teachers, conservationists, etc. It is not a task that can be left to scientists only,” she stresses.

RU has started such grassroots community partnerships in small and informal ways. For example, a masters degree candidate conducted an action research and community problem-solving project with children from local urban and rural schools, focusing on low-cost methods for community members to monitor water quality.

Overcoming institutional barriers

Yet, there are inherent challenges due to the academic structure which must be overcome for such programs to have long-term effect. Such projects are short in duration and lack continuity because of the difficulty for students to maintain involvement once coursework is completed. Community development work around environmental issues requires time, notes Janse van Rensburg. Continuity could be provided by senior academic staff, she points out, but often academic requirements such as conference contributions and publishing are prioritized above community involvement.

Janse van Rensburg stresses the following points for successful external partnerships:

  • recognizing the intrinsic value of faculty members’ community involvement to promote sustainable living as part of research and teaching;
  • ensuring the continuity of community- university projects;
  • building community capacity through formally accredited courses; and
  • building partnerships with industry that do not compromise principles of ecological sustainability.

Setting new directions

Rhodes University is the first South African member of ULSF. In joining, the institution has committed to developing and implementing a formal environmental policy. Vice-Chancellor David Woods stresses that RU is also a place “where leaders learn” and as such, should set new directions.

The South African Commission on Higher Education has proposed a national quality assessment program for tertiary institutions. Woods has offered RU as a test case for the Commission to clarify criteria for assessment. Signing the Talloires Declaration, he says, has provided a framework for action; the environmental policy will provide a standard to measure achievement. He hopes to set an institutional example and encourage other African universities to follow suit.

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