Our rich heritage offers key lessons on how to be good stewards of nature

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The social activist with a passion for sustainable development and a former managing director at the World Bank Dr Mamphela Ramphele, believes Africa’s journey to self-rediscovery is also an ecological trip. She spoke to Kaddu Sebunya.


You were managing director at the World Bank. Do you think the environmental risks from Africa’s growing population and climate change were understood early enough?

The World Bank, like its shareholders, took some time to understand the importance of inclusive sustainable development because it was blinded by the neo-liberal agenda of the market knowing best.

We now know that we need a completely different development narrative that puts human dignity, common good and stewardship at its centre.

Accountable governments are essential to regulating markets to ensure that practices that undermine the future wellbeing of the planet are not enabled.

We now have the technology and knowledge to make the transition to renewable sustainable energy systems and to live within the boundaries of our planetary system.

Africa’s relative under-development presents us with an opportunity to avoid the mistakes of the developed world and to aggressively take advantage of the abundance of sun, wind and land to forge regenerative economies and food security.

Africa can become the food basket of the world if it returns to carbon-based agricultural systems that promote greater biodiversity and ecosystem stability.

Africa is a ‘continent defined by loss.’ From the slave trade to colonialism to the loss of natural resource wealth, wildlife and now the brain drain. How did the rain begin beating us?

Africa’s future is in the hands of all its citizens. We need to learn the lessons of losses that have defined our past, and work together to heal the wounds that were inflicted on our dignity by openly acknowledging them and the impact they have on us as we attempt to transform our societies.

Our ancestors taught us to converse among ourselves to share losses, mourn the dead and celebrate successes and new life. We need to return to the rich heritage of story-telling that connected past, present and future generations to the natural environment we reside in.

African culture is infused with imageries of the inter-connectedness of the human race, humans and nature, as well as time and space. We need to harvest these rich cultural elements so we can reweave the beautiful tapestry of languages and cultures that define our continent and its people.

That process needs to start at home, in the local community, in spiritual practices, in education systems, workplaces and the wider society.

We need to re-imagine our cities, towns and rural settlements as sustainable places where renewable energy drives regenerative economic systems that promote harmony with nature.

You were vice-chancellor of the University of Cape Town. If you look at African studies, do you think enough has been done to make the connections with our culture, our land, our wildlife and the way we organised and built our lives around them over the centuries?

The crying shame is that Africa has not yet succeeded in building a network of powerful African studies centres and institutes to capture and tell the stories of our rich heritage.

African history in my own country is still taught as the story of our conquerors, not that of our ancestors.

We have ceded ownership of the origins of science to the ‘West’ by referring to it as ‘Western science,’ despite convincing studies by scholars like Cheikh Anta Diop details the contributions of ancient Africa to world science and technology.

Our universities need to do better in promoting African history, languages and culture so present generations can drink from the rich well of our heritage.

South Africa’s education system is under-performing. Undoing the legacy of deliberate under-education of the local population to support the notion of their inferiority is proving difficult.

Our failure to acknowledge the wounds of humiliation suffered under apartheid has disabled our teachers and parents from accepting mother tongue education and African history and culture as foundations of successful personal and career development.

The very fact that we describe ourselves proudly as Anglophone, Francophone and Lusophone speaks to the psychological liberation we still need to experience to become proud self-authored African citizens.

Why do many Africans see ecological problems as well as others like wildlife poaching as ‘white issues’?

The alienation of the land by colonial conquest from indigenous populations in Africa wounded the psyche of Africans and undermined their ability to be stewards of the natural environment, as their ancestors had been for millennia.

Brutal expropriation of land for ‘wildlife conservation’ across the continent pitted human dignity, livelihoods, ritual and cultural practices against stewardship of the environment.

The harmony that existed between human beings and the environment for millennia was disrupted in the name of a ‘wildlife conservation.’

Moreover, local people were acutely aware of the self-serving nature of the outsiders’ extractive practices which violated the very notion of ecological balance.

Change can only come from acknowledging the wrongs of the past, commitment to restoring the land to its true owners and working together with them to devise inclusive sustainable development approaches.

Real change will only be possible when people feel ownership over not only the assets, but also in shaping strategies for ensuring sustainability for the benefit of future generations.

How can African governments make conservation work for the masses?

African governments continue to struggle with giving ownership of development programmes to local communities because of their lack of experience with citizen stewardship.

The legacy of top-down colonial and apartheid governance models continues to be the norm across Africa. South Africa is failing to break the mold despite its constitutional democratic system.

We need a fundamental mind-set change from authoritarianism to stewardship by citizens working with their governments.

Control and command politics also promote lack of accountability and corruption in public service.

Africa needs to self-correct and acknowledge that the journey of unfinished liberation is essential to our continent unleashing the power of its youthful population to shape a continent with unmatched beauty and ecotourism potential.

The recent death of Sudan, claimed to be the last northern white rhinoceros, left people contemplating which wild animal could soon become extinct or disappear from Africa…

This was a wake up call to all Africans that we are squandering the opportunity given to us by our rich natural heritage. It is not too late for us to come together as a continent and agree to a covenant with our ancestors, present generations and those yet to be born.

We need to pledge to do better between local citizens, the government, the private sector and the international community to secure these ancient species for future generations.

We also need to challenge ourselves out of our consumption orientation to socio-economic development towards more ecologically sound regenerative economic models that learn from mimicking nature and its sustainable ways of being. We dare not fail.

South Africa is one of the leading wildlife tourist destinations on the continent. Which are your two favourite nature places in South Africa, and which nature destination outside SA would you like to visit— or have visited?

My favourite wildlife destination is the Kruger Park system of public and private parks. The sheer size and diversity of wildlife leaves me awestruck each time.

Outside my country, the Masai Mara in Kenya/Tanzania is simply the best. Watching the crossing of the mass of animals of the Mara River is a spiritual experience. We dare not fail to preserve this for posterity.

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