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
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
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.
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."
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
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
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
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
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."
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
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
- recognizing the intrinsic value of faculty members' community
involvement to promote sustainable living as part of research
- ensuring the continuity of community- university projects;
- building community capacity through formally accredited courses;
- 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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