Narratives of transformations for changing environments in Africa


Professor Coleen Vogel, University of the Witwatersrand, Johannesburg; Professor Heila Lotz-Sisitka, Rhodes University, Grahamstown; Alice McClure, Co-ordinator, Future Resilience for African CiTies And Lands (FRACTAL)

Africa as a continent is undergoing rapid change, including rampant urbanization, resource extraction and changes accompanying climate change. Africa is one of the most at-risk continents to climate variability and change. Given these changes we can either choose to respond in an incremental, piecemeal manner and/or we can choose to adapt and change the very systems that produce the vulnerabilities to various challenges and risks we face. We can use these opportunities to enable more radical and transformative change.

Transformation seeks to challenge the structural causes of risk that lie within a system, and therefore requires a very good understanding of the ‘system’ that creates or influences environmental change. Transformational change includes fundamental changes to the system. Some, for example, note that there are transformations needed that are linked to the personal, political and practical spheres, while others call for psycho-cultural changes that may be needed.

But what may this all mean, and indeed how may it manifest in an African context? While there are still few solid cases to identify transformative change, much work is ongoing in a range of environmental arenas (including climate change, greening the economy, etc) enabling better understanding of the types of transformative changes that may be needed. Here we identify a few examples of what is currently ongoing, briefly describing their aim, purpose and some preliminary outcomes.

Transformative, transgressive learning in times of climate change

One of the important processes for enabling transformation in times of climate change is learning. This is a process that is poorly understood, and most often associated only with formal education and schooling. However, for societies to develop newly formed and structured social capabilities and cultures for responding proactively and reflexively to climate change, there is need for widespread social learning. Such learning must, however, be transformative, and even be transgressive of the status quo in all sectors of society. Important here is to both understand and also generatively develop new modes and approaches to learning that are co-engaged, and that allow for multi-voiced engagement with matters of concern to communities, and wider society. The IPCC (2014) noted the importance of learning, but also noted that the type of learning required is as yet under-explored and under-developed, an issue taken up via the International Social Science Council (ISSC) Transformative Knowledge Network focusing on Transgressive Learning in Times of Climate Change (T-learning, for short).

The T-learning programme juxtaposes transformative, transgressive and transdisciplinary learning processes. Researchers in four African countries (South Africa, Ethiopia, Zimbabwe and Malawi) are participating in this nine-country transformative knowledge network. Researchers and their co-researchers hail from academia, civil society, social movements and community-based organisations. All are striving to support and expand learning in community contexts focusing on matters of concern as defined by communities grappling with issues that emerge at the nexus of climate, food security, water security and social justice.

African researchers are, more and more, engaging in critical conversations about what it means to build resilience in an African context. The Future Resilience for African CiTies and Lands (FRACTAL) project operates in nine southern African cities. Social learning processes are held regularly in Maputo, Lusaka and Windhoek, bringing together stakeholders to improve understanding of climate-related problems and to support discussions around possible solutions. An Embedded Researcher has been appointed in each of these cities, positioned inside organisations where city-regional decisions are made, and can therefore help researchers focus on improving the scientific climate information that is needed and advise how this information can be integrated into local decision-making processes. In Blantyre, Gabarone and Harare, research is focused on transferability of relevant climate knowledge. Research in the three self-funded cities (Cape Town, Durban and Johannesburg) is being carried out into various aspects of these cities’ climate-related issues. There is significant cross-city engagement and exchanges enabling learning and sharing between the cities.

The FRACTAL project and the Leading Integrated Research in Africa (LIRA2030) programme, which supports the development of integrated, solutions-oriented research to address sustainability challenges in Africa, have both opened up space for asking questions about what development means in African cities, for whom this development should be, and what pathways might be available to achieving this development. Researchers involved in this work have also had to ask hard questions about the usability of research outputs and where these outputs fit into identified development pathways. The work that stems from these questions invites people from an array of backgrounds including science, government and civil society to begin dealing with the challenges in an integrated manner, and often aims to break away from northern worldviews and narratives, enabling wider practices for change both now and in the future.

This blog was produced in partnership with the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.

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