Museologia Social e Urbanismo XXXV

Case Study of Durban

Discussion prompts:

  1. What can be learnt about regional governance from the case of Durban?
  2. How can local governments participate in implementing and achieving the climate change adaptation and mitigation agenda?

We have Debra Roberts with us today, Debra is one of the world’s extreme sustainability practitioners; having led a remarkable period of change in Durban, which has been a pioneer in trying to test and implement a whole range of innovations around sustainable development, specifically around climate change and biodiversity.

So we’re going to be talking to her about the operational challenges of the transition that Durban is trying to lead in South Africa and its implications for other parts of the world.

AR – So, Debra – I mean it’s wonderful to have you here and you know, what we’re trying to get a sense of is since the political transition now in South Africa almost 20 years ago in 1994, how has Durban fared, what were the kind of challenges you faced as a city and what are the responses that we’ve seen over the last 20 years or so?

DR – Thanks Aromar, it’s great to be here with you. I think what we’ve seen is an unusually complex mix of challenges in the sense that when we emerged into the new democracy obviously society had to develop a new set of priorities, we had lost the sort of normative framework of the past apartheid- driven system and the question as a society is what were we shooting for.

Now given the kind of problems we came from, the priorities of the society at that stage were very much development-oriented and was very much development in a narrow sense – it was about dealing with the infrastructure, deficit, building houses, getting everyone to have access to clean water, and there wasn’t a lot of debate in that context around broader issues of sustainability.

And in fact I think, there was an inherent fear that sustainability might mean that the bigger development project for the country might be compromised, and I think that laid the sort of framework for action for the next couple of decades is – how did we bring in the longer-term view into a society that was very much, and correctly so, driven by immediate and short-term needs?

AR – And when did this transition happen – roughly 10 years after 1994 or something like that?

DR- Quite frankly I wish we could say the transition happened, we’re still in the process of it, and I think for me that’s been one of the most surprising things, is that beginning to institutionally change the groundwork for operation is a long-term project in and of itself, and I would say we’re still transitioning, it’s still difficult in the development discourse to really find a place for quite esoteric issues in the South African environment of biodiversity and climate change adaptation and so, because it’s been a complex base and a difficult transition, there hasn’t been one solution.

In fact, we’ve deployed a range of 10% solutions across the board to see where we can prod the system into incremental change in the hope that all of those incremental changes, in fact, add up to that one big transition to society, which is focused not only on human well-being but understands that human well-being in a broader sustainability, a broader resilience context.

So I mean, Durban is an interesting city because its large, at least within the South African context. It has a large rural population. It has concentrated challenges in urban areas, it has development issues that are there.

AR – How have you tried to keep the balance between the rural and the urban in Durban?

DR – Well, we’re quite a schizophrenic city, and I think there are very few cities like us in the sense that within our formal boundaries, the majority of the land use and the majority of the tenure is traditional, so it’s rural; so effectively we have two forms of governance – we have traditional city hall, but we also have effective tribal leadership, and that’s really required us to have two entirely different toolsets.

So if you look at the city hall environment, there we work within planning regulations, planning legislation, zoning, the traditional tools that I think are known and understood.

The moment we cross into traditional governance, there it’s much more about stewardship, it’s about winning the hearts and minds of people because you no longer have the plan, you no longer have the law on your side, and that’s required us literally to develop these two toolsets to have different teams who work in the different spaces.

What we are finding, however, is that is not an absolute boundary, there are learnings from both sides, which we are beginning to pull across, so, for example, the concept of stewardship – getting community to buy into the fact that they have a responsibility over and above that of government to assist with adapting themselves to climate change, to assist with biodiversity.

We’re bringing that into the formal environment with large private landowners. By the same token we’re having to get traditional leadership ready for the idea that there will be town-planning schemes. Yes, there will be more formal systems. Absolutely, and so we begin to see a blurring of those traditional boundaries, but it is causing us as an institution to have to be nimble and smarter in the way we engage with local governance and that’s not really what local government was set up for, you know, its strength is it never changes and its weakness is that it never changes. Exactly – that’s why Durban is such an interesting case because it makes this transition, which is so important for many parts of Africa and other parts of the world, because this is how the real world is structured around traditional communities, informality in some senses, which is also you know quite active in the former part of Durban and of course the government.

AR – So being able to transition between them, what are the things that you sort of learned over the last many years in working from government and trying to address these questions?

DR – And it really has been a game of which pieces on the chessboard do you move; and when you look at it in in that sense of transition you realise this is not a journey you can take by yourself. One of our early lessons is we’ve realised that you’ve got to have a lot of people testing out a variety of different approaches.

So one of our key lessons has been to build  a whole cadre of leaders, champions in various sectors around various issues, in order to enable us to affect this transition.

If you hold in your head the idea that the transition is driven by a range of 10% solutions rather than a silver bullet, you need a lot of experiments running through actual city in a variety of contexts.

AR – So we’ve turned away from perhaps the traditional look at the developmental transition – you know how many roads, how many pipes, how much green space, to how many champions can we have in the right places, and its really begun to focus on the associate institutional elements of change – the people – because all of these barriers, goals that we set ourselves, they’re societally driven, and I don’t think we understand that.

DR -Absolutely; for Global South this is absolutely central, using people and institutions as the way forward to deal with sustainability.

AR – And so that’s an extraordinary tension now in the governance space – is what is local government’s priority?

DR – Putting your head down and getting the local work done, helping people at home, or realising you can do a great deal of that and without this bigger regional, national, international framework, you will at some point be limited. So the question is where do you put your resources and now that’s an interesting space, now obviously we’ve formed a lot of partnerships internationally to help us with that, but it is a big choice, and the question is, I think, as the role of the city-region and city-state becomes more prominent in dealing with global questions – it’s a big question we’re going to have to look at is – how do you take this forward dealing with both of the needs?

AR – How does this play out in the politics of the city and the city hall, because at one end you have you know, tremendous international profile and a lot of impact, but there are always day-to-day battles  to be fought for, in terms of service delivery, development etc. – how does that play out, you know, as a sustainability practitioner. How does it work?

DR – It’s schizophrenic – I mean I don’t think there’s any other word for it, because you’re constantly juggling a million balls in the air, because obviously from a political profile, there’s a strong desire to have Durban seen as a leader, but many of those long-term ideas and how we come full circle to where we started still contradict, in the minds potentially of some leadership, the short-term objectives of what we’re trying to achieve, and it’s constantly looking at, you know, trying to balance an argument where this investment of time and resources at international is seem to have enough value to the city to warrant it, but also demonstrating how that longer-term value might have shorter-term benefits in the way we address our current development needs, and this is really where these outreach issues into stewardship showing us how if we get communities involved, you can manage the city more cost-effectively, if individuals take up some of these sustainability challenges.

How there are new views around what an economy might look like, and you know Durban is quite hard-wired in. We’re the petrochemical centre of South Africa, we’ve got all the big logistics, infrastructure with the port; we are the life blood in many cases  of SADC (Southern African Development Community), transport and logistics.

Beginning to open the doors into some debates around there may be another economy; we can’t escape the fact that we literally are a small city stuck on the tail end of Africa.

In a new world where fossil fuel is hugely expensive, where we’re not transporting a great deal of goods around the world, we’ve got to develop a new way of thinking.

AR- Yes – you need to look for a more services-oriented and also primary sector you know, sustainable.

DR – Absolutely. So we’re using that ability to push the door, and I must admit the door is only open about this wide, but to show that there is another vision, and I think that the fact that there’s a continuity of purpose, and I think that’s another good thing that we’ve done is we’ve held institutional continuity over decades, and that’s created enough of institutional memory that that small progress has not been lost, in fact, what has been done has been very carefully collected and treasured and ordered so that we begin to develop a bigger narrative, and I think that’s been part of our success: staying power, being able to coordinate the lessons and constantly articulate that back into City Hall and being brave about that articulation in the face of often quite severe challenge.

AR – So this new economy that you’re talking about which is less dependent on fossil fuel and logistics and moving things around, what is the role of sort of biodiversity and ecosystems in that? Because I think, you know, you’ve been experimenting with that for a long time, and that’s a new base that’s going away from the sort of traditional model, while you try to move more and more people off the land, and, you know, you use a tremendous amount of fossil fuel subsidization of that process, how would you see that playing out?

DR – And for us it was a big message,it’s a simple message, and it’s something that I think should be at the back of every African urbanist’s mind is, you know, what is the powerhouse of the African city? It’s people, it’s particularly our youth dividend, and it’s our huge ecosystems that are still largely intact, and the question is how do you use those in new spaces?

And we think that begins to set up a different model for land tenure, for urban financing, particularly in cities like ours where the skills base is very low.

There’s a huge opportunity to begin to take those ecosystems, re-imagine them as ecological infrastructure which is cost-effective and within certain limits probably your most adaptable infrastructure in the many of them youthful, to begin to manage that infrastructure just as we’ve got engineers managing pipes and other power lines, train people to begin to manage that.

And that management can take a variety of different forms – your simple entry-level removing the alien invasives so that we get more water flowing into our catchments into town apartments, you know the city is already facing a water crisis.

AR – All the way through to the other end of the opportunity spectrum, we’re a huge domestic tourist centre.  How do you capture that? And South Africans are a very outdoor society using these open areas to create recreational tourism opportunities and creating the business base in our local communities to use that, but then we begin to look at the financial flows, how do we use our downstream industries – very water-dependent – to create the financial flows that support the traditional leader in the upper catchment who is responsible for managing?

DR – And we’re beginning to have that in play now. We’ve got a very large project, which is across municipal boundaries, involves a number of municipalities in our largest water supplying catchment, the Umgeni River, to say we need to look at this.

AR – We’ve got the full range of society all the way from rural, traditional, poor through to wealthy, urban, and beginning to tie all these bits together in a management program with all the various complex government and governance institutions around the table so forming a partnership, getting buy-in and leadership from everyone, to say how do we begin to look at this over the long- term? How do we tackle the land management issue and begin to look at these financial flows?

DR – And this is the way the international partnerships have become useful looking, for example, at some of the water partnerships that have been developed in South America and how they’ve worked.

And so begin to tie the international resources with our local resources, getting the stakeholders together, tying it to an immediate problem- water is an immediate problem for development in Durban-and getting those leaders that we’ve brought now to step  forward and to take control and lead. So it’s a very complex, socio-institutional system that you’re constantly maneuvering. Within there, taking biodiversity out of the green-elitist rhino and sunset type imagery into hard-working, everyday, cost-effective ecological infrastructure, that’s really been ——And livelihoods because lots of people get jobs out of this and help people move out of poverty, so it’s a remarkable way of actually lifting the floor.

AR – The question is what is the value chain? And so once you’ve entered people into the green economy, where do they then go? And that’s where we haven’t quite got the answer yet, and that’s a space where and the social mobility question which comes with that.

DR – Yes, absolutely.

AR – So I mean if you were talking to a development practitioner who wanted to look at sustainability, what are the four or five things you could tell them from this experience of yours and Durban that might sort of interest them and can sort of invigorate them to keep going? Because this is obviously a difficult landscape and you have you know a legacy that comes from Mandela and that transition there, and we’re trying to take you into a very different world, both inside and outside, so what are the four or five things that you might find interesting for them?

DR – I suppose top of my list is be brave and never lose your integrity because in this sea of you’ve got to have a core course  that you stick to, so I think there’s a very, and that surprised me about it, is that change very often starts with individual change.

So believe in yourself as a practitioner and know what ideals that you’re changing. A very powerful tool

I think is science, and we’ve not brought enough of the available science, global science, into our local work, we’ve never known more than we have at this particular moment in human evolution, and yet we deploy it so poorly.

By science I don’t necessarily mean the big and complex dataset, but I mean some of the core messages that are guiding lights on what that new roadmap looks like and what direction it might be going, and I think we owe it to ourselves as urban practitioners to be aware of that science and to engage the scientific community who are increasingly more and more looking to form bridges with us, and I think we’ve got to be active and and reach out to them. I think the ability to stay the institutional course, so while you as an individual might move through a variety of iterations in your career, how does the work that you do set up an institutional course that will maintain its continuity and purpose through time, and what are the mechanisms there?

It generally means building this team of other champions so that as champions move in and out of play, there’s someone who always holds the long-term meaning––

AR – Yes, irrespective of what political parties are in control or you know what institute is running it.

DR -Exactly, and an important part of that is “Document, Document, Document!” You know it is something–– It’s a hard part of life––David Satterthwaite has been remarkable like that, you know I would attribute so as the documentation doing was largely due to David’s nagging in the sense that unless you write it down, it’s of no use to either you locally or to international learning, …exactly, there’s a need to circulate, …and then I think that probably the most recent lesson for us is you know having determined your course, having held it firm, having built a team that is deploying science, having documented all of that, reflect.

Because you can become so blinkered in chasing that new goal that you forget to adjudicate whether the path that you’re on, and that’s quite a complex space, it’s a new space, this whole idea of monitoring and evaluation particularly because all the values you’re monitoring and evaluating are largely societally-driven and change through time and dynamics of societies like ours.

AR – How do you constantly ensure that you’re on the right path?

DR – So, be innovative, don’t be scared to develop the tools you might need, don’t be scared to fail because failure often brings most important learnings, and just feed that into the system, …Exactly… that’s part of the process of innovation. And keep feeding into the system. And so I mean to move from the level of practitioner to the city, what are the big things that you know that Durban has learned over the years that are actually useful for not only you know Southern African cities but cities in the Global South and even in the North for some senses because this is a very interesting landscape, it has many of the elements of what the latter part of the twentieth century is going to be like the mix of different institutions, politics, and you know set of incremental changes,

AR – What are the things that you think other people would be happy to learn from you and you could contribute to, let’s say the global and the regional debate?

DR – I think for us the big learning has, and this is something that I think besets a whole range of Global South cities, is the need to transition from the concept of “government” as the deliverer of change to “governance” as the deliverer of change, because if you make that ideological leap, number one, it talks to the fact that as government you must be prepared to govern, which means you must be prepared to put in place the tools that are necessary, you must have town planning schemes, you must be prepared to enforce them no matter how difficult that is, so the rule of law becomes important, but understanding the the rule of law doesn’t work in a society that’s battling with issues of social cohesion.

So the question of forming partnerships out into the various elements of society and you know particularly in the Global South as elements of society can be as diverse as large industrialists to traditional leadership and recognising that you need to develop new tools, that it’s not going to be a question of you taking your plans to people but you’re going to have to develop tools that allow them to come to you with their priorities, with their views to play a very active role in your space and that is very uncomfortable for government.

And  for us that idea of a mutual stewardship, a global responsibility and finding and creating the platforms to have that debate and to sustain that debate has become very important, which means we’ve had to retool ourselves and we’ve had to reskill ourselves to have that debate, to work in areas where land tenure doesn’t operate in the systems that we understand, to understand that worldview and to be able to bring that worldview ironically back into the democratic system, because we found that the democratic system can itself become quite autocratic if it believes in itself too entirely without constantly adjudicating itself against society’s voices.

And you know, we’ve had a huge amount of challenge in trying to create those open mechanisms for society to talk to us. We’ve also, I think, been firm as a local government around the role of science. Science is not perfect, doesn’t bring an ultimate truth, but it does bring a new toolsets, and I think if there is another important message to cities in the Global South, looking at the way you reconceptualise urban practitioner, practitioner was the person that handed out the dog licenses. Urban practitioners are now people who are part of large teams, running the biggest organisations in the world, so these control the world.

We are part of big corporates. Every large corporate needs a R&D facility, so local government should not be scared of hiring highly-skilled science practitioners, and when I use the term science, I, as a person who’s trained in the natural sciences, have learned that that embraces the social sciences, …absolutely, and economics, …and we’ve got to conceptualise that local government needs people with PhDs who can think big things

And theyneed to partner Exactly, we need all those partnerships and again that’s something we’ve had to do, is we’ve had to reach out to the tertiary institutions saying we need this link, you’re part of our day-to-day business, it’s not a “nice-to-have” but you’re an absolutely essential part and that in itself is creating new relationships that are often difficult to broker in the first instance but are so productive once you get them up and running.

AR – Ok, wonderful. We’ve been talking to Debra Roberts this morning about sustainability and cities, especially in Durban, and the role of urban practitioners in making this possible.


Allen, Adriana. “Environmental planning and management of the peri-urban interface: perspectives on an emerging field.” Environment and urbanization 15.1 (2003): 135-148.

World Bank. 2013. Urban Agriculture : Findings from Four City Case Studies. Urban Development Series Knowledge Papers;No. 18. Washington, DC. © World Bank. License: CC BY 3.0 IGO.

Additional Optional Resources: 

UNEP’s Global Environmental Outlook

Ted talk by Carolyn Steel on How food shapes our cities

Our Planet – Urban solutions: Making cities strong, smart, sustainable – A report by UNEP


Citar este post
Pedro Pereira Leite (2017, 7 Abril). Museologia Social e Urbanismo XXXV. Global Heritages. Recuperado em 29 de Maio de 2024, de

Pedro Pereira Leite

Researcher and professor. He had his PhD. on museology in 2011, with the title “Muss-amb-ike Homeland: The commitment on musicological process”, that was published in 2011. In 2012 he finishes a Post-PhD Research on "Biographical Glances: The intersubjectivity poetry on museology, at Lusófona University (Lisbon). Presently he is working in his Post PhD. Research about: “Global Heritages" with the aims to build a network on local cognizance and memory manager has a tool to build the will of action in 3 different communities, linked by past communed heritages.” He works at CES. He participates on different Research network, presented papers in national and international conferences, and had published books on research subjects.

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