Heila Lotz-Sisitka

Heila Lotz-Sisitka holds the Murray & Roberts Chair of Environmental Education and Sustainability at Rhodes University. She has contributed actively to the inclusion of environmental and human rights concerns in South Africa's National Curriculum Statement and to the SADC Regional Environmental Education Programme. She serves on UNESCO's International Reference Group for the UN Decade of Education for Sustainable Development and is the editor of the Southern African Journal of Environmental Education. She coordinates the MEd programme in Environmental Education at Rhodes University and also supervises a number of PhD studies in the same field. She served as the Scientific Chair of the World Environmental Education Congress in 2007.

In this interview, Heila Lotz- Sisitka, Director of the Murray & Roberts Chair of Environmental Education and Sustainability at Rhodes University (South Africa) explains the different ways of understanding sustainable development in African universities.

How is the idea of sustainability received in the African context?

I think the idea of sustainability is a complex question because is not a new idea in terms of the way that African society has lived for a long time within quite a sustainable way. But if I can call it sort of post environmental movement concept of sustainability, and the way it has been developed elsewhere makes it relatively new and unfamiliar concept. So I think it is a new concept that is emerging. I also think that there is a particular form of social resonance with it, but also can be alienating if it is not well explained and developed in an African context.

How do African universities understand sustainability?

From the review that we have been doing, and also my work with Mainstreaming Environment and Sustainability in Africa (MESA) University Partnership over the last six years I would say that we have noticed three different ways of understanding sustainable development. One is related very much to the relationship between the university and its community, and how knowledge in a University can string the innovation and sustainable outcomes at the community level, which is most often related to improve living conditions, quality of life, improve education, and better technologies to manage the issues that face communities. So that would be one understanding.

The second one is what I would call more the global understanding of sustainability, I would say perhaps a more northern concept which is more around the technologies, you know, to try to transform society through high level technology. So for example the solar voltaic panels, winds, energy generators, we are getting a lot of those kind of technologies that have been transported here and therefore the idea of knowledge transfer and high tech sustainability solutions, and some of the universities, especially in my country South Africa are starting to look at those, they are also developing some of those kind of technologies. And so that would be another concept of sustainable development.

And then there is another one which I think is probably also very interesting, is very much like a community innovation one which is more of a kind of critical scholarship, which is assessing and trying to understand the power relations around resource flows. So, who owns the resources? What does it mean if you have transnational capital extraction of your resources? And what does that mean for the underlying wealth of the country? What are you loosing through that? Sort of massive resource extraction and the power of resource flows, who holds them? We know that 80% of the resources are used by 20% of the world’s people, so there is a very strong power relationship there. So this critical scholarship is emerging and people are trying to unpack that, and therefore also empower African people to make better decisions about their resources and their resource base.

Which do you think could be the HEIs’ role within the process of sustainability in Africa?

I think it has a very important role to play. History of universities in Africa is short in some ways. There have been intellectual scholarship there since Timbuktu, and then we had a handful of universities, which were really colonial colleges. And then we have the post independent universities. So since the 1960s we have seen a growth from 50 universities to over 350 and now we have over 900 higher education institutions. They are growing very rapidly. They are capturing, I suppose what you could call the elites of society, or the societies’ elite coming into the universities, and therefore begin to control and design the policy and strategy of countries. From that point of view the universities are very important. The continent is also growing rapidly. The population is increasing. So we are looking at a very youthful population into the future. Which I think is a very important resource for sustainability. So if our universities can be thought leaders and practice leaders to demonstrate to young people, how to create better lives and how to live more sustainably within the social and the ecological context that we have which is our planet. Then I think they have a very important role to play, but if they continue to be irrelevant, to distant from the communities, to distant from the real issues, then I think they can just become alienated in society and therefore will lose their function.

So then to be connected with the community is probably the most important challenge for Higher Education Institutions?

I think so. To the community but not in a kind of, if you can call it, narrow localized way. I think the universities have the responsibility to bring knowledge into play with community issues, because you have access to a wide base of knowledge. But it is the process of bringing that into the contextual need. That relationship is the important one.

From the African cultural diversity perspective, which could be its contribution and proposal for global sustainability?

You know the African societies if you look at the ecological footprint they are sustainable societies. If you want to assess developed and developing using the criteria of ecological footprint then you know you could turn over all the concepts of developed and developing, and you could create a different way of looking at societies. Of course the problem at the moment is that the wider societies structured into a kind of monetary economy which requires you to be able to operate with a sort of high level monetary economy and therefore it costs people to being poor. Now I think there is a lot that can be learned from African technology in the way that it is more sustainable in essence. There is a lot that can be learned from African people in the way that they live together and they work together, there is a kind of a sense of society that exists there, which I think it has been lost in more individualized societies. And there is a rich creativity in African societies, so I think, and if we have one of the world’s most youthful population with that immense creativity, if we could bring it at a resource for sustainability we really have a lot to offer to the world.


  • UNESCO. United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization
  • The Catalan Association of Public Universities (ACUP)

Sponsored by

  • Generalitat de Catalunya
  • Ajuntament de Barcelona