During our time as students at Stellenbosch University (SU), we have been involved in student activism around climate change. We’ve had numerous discussions on this topic with a range of student societies, the Student Representative Council (SRC) and various staff members. We could quickly tell that these conversations normally take two forms. 1st, they are largely unstructured and overly aspirational, not resulting in tangible action. 2nd, they focus on the (very real) administrative and bureaucratic hurdles one has to face to start a critical discussion at SU around climate change which have the potential to affect “real change”. We decided to try to break down the siloed discussions between staff and students at SU, while also trying to bridge the gap between the theoretical and practical.

We hosted the Dialogue Series during Earth Week in 2022 over two evening sessions (19th-20th April 2022) at the CoCreate Hub in the heart of Stellenbosch. The events consisted of a range of panelists from various departments and faculties across SU, while also including related parties from outside of SU.

Figure 1: The first panel

The first panel was lead by two academics. Dr Christian Lueme Lokotela, based in Family Medicine, spoke on Planetary Health, and Thembekile Dhlamini from Human Nutrition  located the climate crisis in the Western Cape and specifically in Stellenbosch. The speakers talked about the connections between climate change and health, energy, water, and transport. Further they showed that while widespread action is needed urgently, there are tangible and practical first steps that SU ought to take. The speakers clearly illustrated the way the climate crisis will impact every part of our lives.

The panel also looked at what SU as an institution and its staff and students can do to ensure a “just transition” to a carbon neutral and more sustainable university. Feedback from students, who made up the majority of the attendees, indicates that they felt more empowered about what they could do regarding the often overwhelming narratives about the climate crisis.

Figure 2: The second panel comprised of a range of SU stakeholders.

The second panel focused on the current and future role of Stellenbosch University.

The panel included Prof Stan Du Plessis, the COO of SU, David Le Page of Fossil Free SA, John De Wet – SU’s Environmental Sustainability Manager, Lwando Nkamisa in his capacity as Ward Councilor at the Municipality and previous SU SRC Chairperson and Anele Mdepa who is the Manager of Student Governance. Representatives from the current SRC were unfortunately unavailable to participate.

We discussed SU’s mitigation measures in place such as electricity meters and functional water use management devices.  It was shown that SU needs to take more decisive action to adequately address the climate crisis.

Anele Mdepa argued strongly that student voices needed to be included in such decisions, which they traditionally are not, or rather taken on symbolically as a tick box exercise. The issue of divestment raised both the limitations and opportunities SU has to be an institution that fights for climate justice, both in principle and in action.

Comments from the audience of mostly students pushed for further integration of students’ voices into decision making processes around how SU mitigates climate change. This was supported with a unanimous call for both students and staff to access and engage SU’s Environmental Sustainability Programme (ESP) and was echoed by Prof. Sandy Liebenberg who was in the audience . The ESP has not yet been available to students or staff, with limited public participation around the creation of the document.

While the larger impacts of the dialogue series are still yet to be determined, the connections made between the speakers and students, along with various commitments around student engagement and participation paint a very different picture from the isolated and bureaucratically-laden process of the past. Further, the dialogue series shows the role that non-positional leaders at SU can play in creating a politics and transformative discussions around climate justice.

The steps forward are for broader engagements along the same lines. Please reach out to us if you are passionate about joining and assisting us taking these conversations further.

Muhammed Lokhat (Mphil, Centre for Sustainability Transitions)
Matthew Wingfield (PhD Candidate, Social Anthropology)