A Look Ahead: Studying Sustainability in South Africa

BY: LAUREN D’SOUZA, Social Media & Web Coordinator

Next semester, I am thrilled to be embarking on my study abroad adventure in Cape Town, South Africa. When I first was pondering the idea of studying abroad, I had lukewarm feelings. I’ve been very fortunate to have traveled abroad with my family, and at first, I wasn’t sure where I wanted to go or what I wanted to get out of a study abroad program.

Upon researching the possibilities, however, I immediately found a program that fit my interests: the Global Sustainability & Environment by the Council on International Educational Exchange (CIEE). As opposed to programs in which students can directly enroll in a foreign university and take classes alongside local students, the Global Sustainability program is more of a workshop- and field-based experience. (I’m thrilled that this mission resonates well with the Hixon Center, which wants to promote experiential learning on the topic of sustainability as well!) In class, we gain theoretical and policy knowledge of how sustainability initiatives are being implemented globally and locally. Outside of class, we go on excursions to see firsthand what sustainable development looks like, meeting with guest lecturers, governmental officials, nonprofits, engineers, biologists, and other professionals who have established their careers in the environmental sector.

CIEE offers this program in two cities: Berlin, Germany and Cape Town, South Africa. Choosing which city I wanted to study in was a difficult process, as both cities provide vastly different perspectives and achievements in sustainability. I began to think about what kind of knowledge I wanted to depart the program with, and how my experiences in each city would inform and improve my goals back at home.

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Source: CIEE

Germany is an admirable country for many, many reasons. With a relatively small (compared to the U.S.) population, a high standard of living, a progressive (female!) chancellor, and a citizenry who cares about climate change, Germany is the perfect case study for positive environmental action. How do you teach people how to recycle properly? Germany figured it out. How do you build environmental policies over four decades to encourage green infrastructure, proper land use, public transportation, and investment in renewable energy? Germany did that too. How do you institute a guiding policy of sustainability into the workings of your federal government? It’s right there, on the government’s website. Even when speaking to Professor Tanja Srebotnjak, the director of the Hixon Center who was born and raised in Germany, I marvel at the innovative and action-focused outlook that German citizens have toward the environment, which manifests itself in their governance, policies, and everyday actions.

To be frank, though, I would be lying to myself if I thought the United States population was as forward-thinking, willing to act, and cohesive as the German population. As we can see, illustrated perfectly by our most recent election, the U.S. cannot even come to a consensus on whether or not climate change exists, whether it is caused by humans, and whether we should do anything to combat it—a belief structure that now exists in our federal executive. To attempt to implement Germany’s incredibly progressive environmental policy agenda in a country that still has strong ties to coal and oil, loathes regulation, and feels no sense of urgency in acting on climate would be foolish.

Instead, I chose to study global sustainability in Cape Town, South Africa—a country that is fascinating in its own right, let alone when making comparisons to the United States. South Africa, like the U.S., faces many unique challenges that citizens see as more pressing than climate action. South Africa must address socio-economic inequality, governmental corruption, racial tensions, unequal infrastructure, education, and the rural-urban divide. Of course, learning about these issues immediately resonated with my knowledge of American current affairs. Environment is not at the top of most U.S. politician’s priorities (although it should be!); instead, our officials focus on the economy, job growth, the educational system, and homeland security.

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Source: Green Africa Directory

Although these problems seem similar at face value, the South African government has approached its challenges in a vastly different manner. Take a look at the Strategic Agenda of Government, issued by the office of South African President Jacob Zuma. Of the ten strategic priorities, six have to do with sustainable development: creating sustainable jobs, rebuilding infrastructure, instituting agrarian reform and ensuring food security, improving public health, building sustainable communities, and efficiently managing resource use and energy production. In some ways similar to Germany, South Africa has made sustainability a guiding principle in solving a wide variety of social, economic, and political issues. South Africa has an even larger challenge, as they began the process of industrialization much later than Western countries like Germany and the U.S., and don’t have the freedom or time to undergo a resource-intensive industrializing period. Instead, South African can leapfrog total dependency on fossil fuels, and move straight to renewable technologies.

Though the U.S. and South Africa face somewhat similar challenges of race, economy, and inequality, it seems that the South African government has taken a disparate approach to solve these issues—that is, it uses sustainability as a guiding principle for moving forward. I chose Cape Town to learn firsthand from the policymakers, engineers, economists, and other individuals who have helped shape South Africa’s current path, and to spend time in a country that is very different from the United States.

The program is also focused on sustainable design, architecture, and engineering rather than policy, which I think is also relevant to building healthier individual communities. In Cape Town, our program will embark on excursions such as seeing a bioremediation site on the coast, visiting a solar “EcoVillage,” and planning local sustainability projects in a horticultural area of the city.

Even if it seems difficult in our current political climate to envision climate action from the federal level, several cities and states have vowed to institute their own actions. Hopefully, after returning from my semester in Cape Town armed with new ways to solve social and economic issues and simultaneously address sustainability, I can work on creating more comprehensive environmental policies that will guide us toward a sustainable future and avoid current partisan political debates on climate action.