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Forming Partnerships: Insights from Southern Africa

Volume 1 Number 25 - December 2002

Pat Irwin and Heila Lotz-Sisitka





This article explores a range of partnerships influencing the work of environmental education practitioners in the southern African region. The Environmental Education Unit at Rhodes University, South Africa and the partnerships it has engaged with over a 12-year period is presented as a case study. Different kinds of partnerships are also examined, for example with government, NGO's, international organizations, institutions, local communities, and funding organizations.

Through a critical analysis of the Unit's interactions within these different kinds of partnerships, we highlight challenges, benefits and lessons learned, in particular the benefits of strong conceptual/intellectual partnerships in the building of a professional community of educators. Factors such as the need to nurture innovation and creativity, ground interactions in real-life experiences, and the consideration of relationships between policy and practice is discussed. We also illustrate ways in which partnerships influence the political economies of practice and projects, and explore how ideological environments may in turn shape them.

We explore the way in which a framework of mutually beneficial partnerships may vary and illustrate that in some cases, partnerships may be ambivalent processes, with diverse power relationships at play. In providing this analysis, we hope to challenge botanic gardens educators to reflect on the kinds of partnerships they are engaged in, and on some of the factors that shape and influence their nature and outcomes.


One of the major challenges facing the world community, as it seeks to replace unsustainable development patterns with environmentally sound and sustainable development, is the need to activate a sense of common purpose on behalf of all sectors of society (Agenda 21, Chapter 27:197)

Agenda 21 challenges all sectors of society to participate in, and establish meaningful partnerships in achieving social change and sustainable development.  It furthermore challenges partners in sustainable development to clarify and recognize the independent roles, responsibilities and special capacities of each.  

Recent deliberations at the Johannesburg World Summit on Sustainable Development (WSSD) once again highlighted the importance of meaningful partnerships in achieving sustainable development.  Educational interactions during the WSSD provided much evidence of existing and emerging partnerships. For example, the South African Ministry of Education hosted a seminar on 'Educating for a Sustainable Future', in partnership with UNESCO, the theme of which was Action, Commitment and Partnerships.  Ironically, the seminar tended to profile the existence of partnerships; but did little to review these critically.  Several newly emerging partnerships were adopted with little critical debate. At another level, many smaller local level partnerships were secured in interactions between professionals working in the environmental education / EFS arena. The Rhodes University Environmental Education Unit (RUEEU) for example, established an informal research-based partnership to work with global Earth Charter initiatives.   

While networking has been the subject of much discussion in environmental education work (see for example Taylor, 1997), there has been relatively little attention given to the interdependent role and nature of partnerships in enabling and sustaining environmental education processes. It is within this context that we offer some tentative insights from southern Africa.

An Overview of Partnerships at Rhodes University  

Partnerships have been central to the success of the Rhodes University Environmental Education Unit’s work over the past twelve years. They have also presented us with numerous, often complex, challenges. In reviewing these partnerships for the purposes of opening the conversation, we have identified two macro issues that have shaped almost all of our partnership relationships.

These are:

  • The tensions that exist within varied power relationships
  • The identification and actualizing of mutual benefits.  

We examine these two issues in the context of cases which exemplify the range of partner relationships in the RUEEU.  

We have identified eight different kinds of partnerships: with corporate funders; government; parastatals; non-governmental organizations (NGO’s); international donor agencies; within our own institution; and with our local community in Grahamstown and the Eastern Cape province.  We have also identified the establishment of critical intellectual partnerships as a key element of partnerships at RUEEU. 

Partnerships with Corporates

Environmental education at Rhodes University has been involved in partnerships with corporates since the establishment of the Murray & Roberts Chair of Environmental Education in 1990. While initially the partnership was founded (through the good offices of WWF-SA, an NGO) on a funder-recipient basis with assurances of quality delivery and accountability; from the start of its operation it began to take on a different shape. This involved the establishment of a steering committee, which included the funder and prominent members of the local community, in which the general direction of the Chair’s work was negotiated.  This process has ensured continued corporate involvement and financial commitment, linked to the recognition of delivery of quality outputs.  Over time, and as the Chair became integrated into the Unit, the mutually beneficial nature of this partnership has become more prominent, particularly since the corporate organizations have started to consider issues of sustainable development as part of their core business.  

Of special significance to these relationships has been the RUEEU’s ability to offer a viable corporate social investment with tax relief benefits. RUEEU is also rapidly moving to a position of being able to offer professional support to corporate programmes for change towards sustainability. An example is that of industry course materials developed by the Unit being used in Murray & Roberts’ own training programmes. We have also been able to draw on the professional resource-base of our corporate relationships in, for example, developing a module on environmental management practices in the mining industry with Gold Fields SA, one of our corporate partners.  While the RUEEU has been conscious of some of the ethical dilemmas of engaging corporate partnerships from sectors such as mining and construction, we believe that our ongoing engagement with them has been environmentally beneficial.

Partnerships with Government

Since 1994 the RUEEU has been heavily involved in a variety of partnerships with government departments at both national and provincial level. Prior to 1994, partnerships with government were mixed and difficult to maintain due to the dominant ideological ethos of the time.  While our partnerships with government have expanded over the past eight years, and new avenues for environmental education work have opened up as a result, this work has not been easy. The complex challenges of policy development, capacity building throughout the system and the immense challenges of re-orienting society at all levels have provided many intellectual and research challenges to the work of the RUEEU (Lotz-Sisitka, 2002).  

Government partnerships are often characterized by unequal power relationships, high levels of bureaucracy, and difficulties maintaining personal relationships.  In addition, largely because of bureaucratic institutional frameworks, the nuances and potential impact of research results are often lost.  This is partly because research work in policy contexts tends to require and value more broad-based survey type research, which does not necessarily provide the in-depth perspectives on contextual issues that often influence the nature of change at a local level.  This gap between policy and practice has to some degree been bridged by partnership initiatives based on co-operative projects involving state-civil society relationships such as the EECI and EEPI.  While pinpointing mutually beneficial relationships with government is often very difficult, the gap between policy and practice has become a catalyst for a number of research initiatives within the Unit.  We believe, that through this, we are beginning to make more tangible contributions to the work of government. 

Partnerships with Parastatals

In contrast to partnerships with government, we have found partnerships with parastatals to be more accessible and more professionally engaging. We, for example, recently formed a partnership with the South African National Parks to engage in a professional development and research programme jointly with them, for the benefit of their staff.  This programme has led to tangible outputs, with many members of staff developing materials, programmes and policy plans to support environmental learning in the South African National Parks.  Of benefit to the RUEEU has been the deepening of the research terrain on Environmental Interpretation and Education, and a clearer perspective on the relationship between professional development and institutional development.  At a management level, we were able to co-manage this programme through a steering committee, and research results have been fed directly into the organization for consideration in relation to their policy and strategy development.  

On the other hand, partnerships with parastatals may also encounter bureaucratic and capacity difficulties, influenced by the less than stable financial position of parastatals in the current fiscal landscape.  In this programme, we were able to distill diverse roles and responsibilities, and develop an understanding of the need for different power relationships in co-managing the programme. For example, conceptual power and management power did not necessarily reside in the same place at the same time, but shifted and changed during the life of the project. Partnerships of this kind provide opportunities to optimize the potential of diverse power dynamics in practical programmes.

Partnerships with NGOs

As with parastatals, the RUEEU has found that partnerships with non-governmental organizations are more firmly located in the arena of professional exchange. While NGOs have fewer problems with bureaucratic requirements, they often experience problems with financial stability and staffing as well as competition with each other for both. In the post-apartheid era, NGO groups in South Africa have experienced many such problems as a result of the channelling of funding and human capacity into government bodies. NGOs sometimes have environmental agendas that are not compatible with each other or with those of the RUEEU.   

Our partnerships with NGOs have generally been focused on projects that support professional development and capacity building, in fields as diverse as teaching ecology and conducting research.  One particularly fruitful and  long running partnership has been with the Wildlife and Environment Society of SA (WESSA) One of our joint projects, known as The Gold Fields Participatory Course, supported by one of our corporate sponsors, draws post graduate students to Rhodes University. This course broadens the impact of environmental education professional development, and through Rhodes University, enables WESSA to offer accredited professional development for their own staff, and a range of participating groups nationally.   The RUEEU has also drawn heavily on the resources developed for field-based work through Share-Net, a WESSA project.   Our partnerships with WESSA have extended to co-funding agreements, co-operative fundraising initiatives, and collaborative research in professional development. Such projects have enabled us to develop a mutually beneficial partnership based on professional and intellectual respect, as well as recognition of the diverse forms of expertise necessary for a professional field to flourish. 

Partnerships with International Donor Agencies

Since 1994 there has been an influx of international development aid to support development and transformation in southern Africa.  This has led to numerous donor funded environmental education projects and programmes. This trend has brought new challenges to partnership orientations, notably issues associated with the power dynamics inherent in donor-recipient relationships, where the donor is often most powerful and is able to set the agenda for change.  These agendas are often encapsulated in the form of logical framework plans, which are then more or less imposed in development situations. Such planning frameworks do not lend themselves to participatory evaluation or change in the life of projects.  A further challenge has been the changing nature of the political economies in environmental education work. Large scale donor funded projects can change local political economies, and often create false economies that are difficult to sustain after the project has ended.  These partnerships are often ambivalent, as they bring these, and other challenges, as well as the benefits of international interaction and additional sources of funding.  

Partnerships with our Local Community

An important dimension of environmental education practice, is practicing in one’s own back yard such as with schools, municipalities or community organisations.  Working within the context of one’s local community, provides the opportunity for grounding and interaction with real life challenges.  Theories are put to the test,  research results may be applied in local contexts, and a sense of community is enhanced.   While it is important to interact within local contexts, tangible evidence of results is often slow to emerge, as one interacts with the multi-faceted nature of local community life, politics and bureaucracy, as well as the varying enthusiasm of individuals. 

Within-Institution Partnerships

In this respect, our direct experience is largely limited to Rhodes University, although we inevitably share perspectives with colleagues in other institutions. Partnerships are as varied as the institutions themselves, but a number of common factors seem to determine practice and outcome. The most important of these are scale (size of the institution), the openness of governance and management frameworks within the institution, and in somewhat more general terms, what is called institutional culture. Perceptions of mutual benefit also appear to play a key role in the sustainability of intra-institutional partnerships.

At Rhodes University, a relatively small institution, three key factors have been: an open framework and flexible approach on the part of management and governing bodies; wide accessibility to all interested groups and individuals; and personal relationships. Added to this is a strong corporate culture of making things happen and making them work.  Apart from the obvious example of partnerships between academic departments, good working relationships - tantamount to partnerships - have been formed between academic departments and for example, the Estates Division. An active Senate committee on environmental programmes overviews and encourages symbiotic relationships and partnerships.

On the negative side, even good personal relationships do not necessarily transcend individual and departmental jealousies and inclinations towards turf protection. Innovation is often contested by traditionally powerful groups, either with vested interests, or when they perceive potential benefits as a one way flow. This is where long term vision, well conceived and developed arguments, a track record of delivery and ‘institutional culture’ are often able to play a major role.

Critical Intellectual Partnerships

Although of a less concrete nature than the other partnerships listed, this type of partnership is arguably the most important in an educational context. In the RUEEU it is certainly the heart of the programme, not only in its own right as intellectual stimulation, but in its pervading influence nationally, regionally and even internationally.  The Unit views intellectual relationships in terms of sharing and exchange of ideas, mutual critiquing of work, as well as joint research projects, as integral to all partnerships. This need is seen  to be necessary not only at an individual level, but within partnerships such as AusLinks and some of the conservation agencies in South Africa.

Ideological considerations and the differences in conceptualising and approach that result from them are often very challenging, and at times are potentially debilitating. In South Africa we have at times come close to negating and even foregoing  partnerships on ideological grounds and thus there is some sensitivity to the issue. A more fruitful approach is that where differences do exist, they also provide an interface for intellectual growth particularly if there is a mutual willingness to engage with un-likeminded people, even when the power relationships linked to ideology are or have been patently unequal.

Concluding Comments:

As tentative conclusions we might observe that, following twelve years of interaction within such diverse partnerships as we have described, we are able to look back and identify some of the key themes which reflect the lessons we have learned.

  • A recognition of the multi-faceted, dynamic and changing nature of power relationships in partnerships, as well as the diverse political economies associated with different partnerships
  • A need and a willingness to engage within different partnerships in different ways. This requires a flexibility of approach, being willing to confront and engage diverse ideological and intellectual challenges, and recognition of the pragmatic and practical dimensions of sustaining these partnerships
  • A willingness and need to be accountable and transparent in the arenas of financial management, intellectual debate, organizational requirements and social and personal interactions.


Department of Education (DoE),  2002, Revised National Curriculum Statement, Grades R – 9 (Schools),   DoE,   Pretoria.
Janse van Rensburg, E. & Lotz, H.  1998,  Enabling environmental education as a cross-curricular concern in outcomes-based learning programmes:  Discussion document,   Share-Net,   Howick, South Africa.
Janse van Rensburg, E. & Lotz-Sisitka, H.   2000,   Learning for sustainability,  Learning for Sustainability Project,  Johannesburg.    
Lotz-Sisitka, H. & Ashwell, A. (forthcoming)   Policy and praxis: environmental education curriculum development 1992 – 2002,   Rhodes University Environmental Education Unit,  Grahamstown.  
Lotz-Sisitka, H. & Raven, G.   2000,   Active learning in OBE: Environmental learning in South African schools: Report on the National Environmental Education Programme – GET Pilot Research Project,  Department of Education, Pretoria.
Lotz-Sisitka, H.   2002,  Curriculum patterning in environmental education: a review of developments in formal education in South Africa.  In  Environmental education, ethics & action in southern Africa,  EEASA Monograph,  Environmental Education Association of Southern Africa / Human Sciences Research Council,  Pretoria.
Taylor, J.  1997,   Share-Net.  A case study of environmental education resources material development in a risk society, Unpublished Ph.D thesis, Rhodes University, Grahamstown.  
Wynberg, R.  1993,   Exploring the Earth Summit: Findings of the Rio United Nations Conference on Environment and Development: Implications for South Africa,   University of Cape Town,   Cape Town.


Cet article étudie un certain nombre de partenariats qui ont des répercussions sur le travail des praticiens de l’éducation à l’environnement dans la région du sud de l’Afrique. L’Unité d’Education à l’Environnement de l’Université de Rhodes en Afrique du Sud et les partenariats qu’elle a engagés depuis plus de 12 ans sont présentés comme étude de cas. Différentes catégories de partenariats sont aussi décrites, par exemple avec le gouvernement, les ONG, les organisations internationales, les institutions, les communautés locales et des organismes financeurs.

A travers une analyse critique des interactions de l’Unité avec ces différents types de partenariats, nous mettons en lumière les défis, les bénéfices et les leçons que l’on peut en retirer, en particulier le bénéfice d’un partenariat fort, intellectuel et conceptuel, pour la constitution d’une communauté d’éducateurs professionnels. Des éléments tels que la nécessité d ‘entretenir l’innovation et la créativité, les échanges directs dans des expériences de la vie réelle, et l’observation des relations entre théorie et pratique sont exposés. Nous abordons aussi les façons dont les partenariats influencent la politique économique en matière de pratique et de projets et nous explorons comment les environnements idéologiques peuvent à leur tour les façonner.

Nous explorons la façon dont une charpente de partenariats à bénéfices réciproques peut être variée et nous illustrons cela par quelques cas. Les partenariats peuvent être des processus ambivalents, avec des relations de pouvoir en jeu. En exposant cette analyse, nous espérons inciter les éducateurs de jardins botaniques à réfléchir au genre de partenariats dans lesquels ils sont engagés, et à quelques-uns uns des facteurs qui forment et influencent leur nature et leurs résultats.


Este artículo explora una gama de asociaciones que influyen en el trabajo de educadores medio ambientales en el sur de África.  Se presenta como estudio a la Unidad de Educación Medio Ambiental de la Universidad de Rhodes, Sudáfrica, y los a socios con quienes han trabajado.  Se examinan también diferentes tipos de asociaciones, por ejemplo con entidades gubernamentales, ONGs, organizaciones internacionales, instituciones, comunidades locales, y organizaciones proveedoras de fondos.

A través de un análisis crítico de las interacciones de la Unidad dentro de los diferentes tipos de asociaciones, destacamos los  retos, los  beneficios, y las lecciones aprendidas, en particular los beneficios de las asociaciones fuertes conceptuales e intelectuales en la construcción de una comunidad profesional de educadores.  Se debaten factores tales como la necesidad de nutrir la innovación y la creatividad, las interacciones básicas de las experiencias en la vida real, y la consideración de la relación entre las propuestas y la práctica.  También ilustramos las maneras en las que las asociaciones pueden influir en la economía política entre práctica y proyecto, y exploramos como el ambiente ideológico puede moldarlas.

Exploramos como un marco de asociaciones mutuamente beneficiosas puede variar y demostramos que en algunos casos las asociaciones pueden ser procesos ambivalentes, en las que impactan diversos parentescos.  En presentar este análisis, desafiamos a los educadores de los jardines botánicos, a que reflejen sobre los tipos de asociaciones en los que toman parte, y sobre algunos de los factores que forman y influyen su naturaleza y sus resultados.

About the Authors

Pat Irwin and Heila Lotz-Sisitka, Rhodes University Environmental Education Unit, Rhodes University, PO Box 94, Grahamstown, South Africa, 6140.  Email: