By Heila Lotz-Sisitka

There are many social learning networks active in South Africa that are focusing on a range of related nexus issues that focus on youth concerns, social justice, water and food security, poverty, biodiversity loss and climate change. Yet, little is known about t-learning processes in these learning networks.  Even less is known about the multi-levelled nature of these t-learning network’s impacts at different scales, or how intersecting learning networks can drive multi-levelled change. In the South African t-learning programme, we aim to undertake t-learning research in a range of different learning networks, but also to undertake analysis across these t-learning research networks.

South Africa’s development objectives have their roots in the post-apartheid South African Constitution which includes a focus on poverty alleviation, equitable access to natural resources, sustainable utilisation of natural resources for present and future generations, and the right to an environment that is not harmful to health or well-being. However, to address poverty while addressing related new development challenges such as climate change, water scarcity, new energy futures, sustainable human settlements, loss of biodiversity and natural resources, and vulnerability to risk, urgent attention needs to be given to strengthening the learning processes and capabilities needed for achieving these development objectives. New development challenges such as climate change and water scarcity threaten to reverse development progress.

The National Environmental Management Act (No. 102 of 1998); the National Water Act (No 36 of 1998); the National Environmental Management: Biodiversity Act (No 10 of 2004) and a host of other associated legislation introduced a people-centred approach to sustainable development in South Africa, which includes a strong focus on transformative environmental learning. The National Framework for Sustainable Development (RSA, 1997) outlines the need for South African society to focus on efficient and sustainable use of natural resources; address human needs in ways that ensure that resources needed for long term survival are not depleted for short term gain; and that socio-economic systems are appropriately embedded within a recognition of their relationship with ecosystems and ecosystem service.  This rapidly emergent environmental legislative framework has particular learning and skills development needs which are technical, social and ethical at the same time, making for a complex learning environment.

A particular issue of contemporary concern in South Africa is youth capacity development and participation in education and learning processes for a sustainable future. Currently the country has 4 million out of 11 million youth that are unemployed and not in training / education (NEET). A large percentage, 64% of those currently cannot access tertiary training through regular educational pathways and there is need for alternative learning pathways, youth leadership development and youth engagement. For this reason some of the learning network in the South African t-learning case study focus on youth, youth vulnerabilities.

The challenges briefly reviewed above tend to manifest as matters of concern for local communities and organisations in a diversity of ways in rural, peri-urban and urban settings.  All require social learning responses that are transformative and transgressive at multiple levels and that deal with intersecting underlying issues (Bhaskar, 1993) that face all countries in the global South: 1) Ecological destruction of the planet based on a view of nature as an exploitable object; 2) Poverty and inequality based on ongoing exploitation and accumulation of wealth; and 3) Narrow rationalities epitomised by colonial and imperialist thinking (Dussel, 1998). In all of our learning networks we will probe these three intersecting dimensions and how t-learning processes emerge within a wider frame of transforming to sustainability.

Learning Network 1:  Amanzi [Water] for Food (led by Tichaona Pesanayi). This learning network focusses on the nexus between climate change, food and water security in the rural Eastern Cape (with possible expansion to three other rural areas in the next two years). It works with farmers, farmers associations, local economic development officers in the local municipality, and with national institutions such as the Water Research Commission, Agricultural Training Institutes, Universities, and the Departments of Agriculture and Local Government. Starting with farmers knowledge, and local engagement around productive demonstration sites using a multi-partner, co-engaged and expansive learning research methodology, the boundary crossing t-learning work seeks to influence national level curriculum transformation in agricultural learning institutions in ways that respond more appropriately to climate change (currently very little knowledge of climate change is included in agricultural curricula).

Learning Network 2:  Change Drivers! Leadership development amongst South African youth leaders.  This learning network involves young African emancipatory research in action. Its intention is to regenerate and re-imagine what a distinctively young and contemporary feeling of transgressive, liberatory pedagogy could look like in the African context. It does so by tracing the nomadic journeys of young Change Drivers who are part of a network called Activate! Change Drivers. The learning network is geared around understanding how, in a world that is uncertain and unknown, the embodied experience of Change Drivers in South Africa can help practitioners think carefully about how to learn for an unknown and predominantly young future. Change Drivers in this network will be invited to participate in a process that seeks to understand and artistically represent: i) What are some of the relational experiences that catalyse Change Drivers to think beyond past trajectories? What are some of the experiences that invited them to transgress their current ways of being? ii) What do these catalysts for transgressive learning reveal about the collective dreams that Change Drivers are leading themselves to? What visions of the common good emerge from these dreams iii) As educators for social change how can we better move with and respond to these visions of the future? And, how do these insights help us regenerate an understanding of contemporary transgressive learning, framed as liberatory pedagogy in South Africa and Africa?

Learning Network 3:  Changing Practice in the South African Water Caucus Learning Network (led by Jane Burt). This learning network involves grassroots water activist groups in South Africa, who are working with the Environmental Monitoring Group (a national NGO) and the South African Water Caucus (a national social movement structure). In future this learning network will expand to include the Association for Water  . The learning network have adopted a ‘changing practice’ social learning course model to strengthen emergence of activist confidence and competences to monitor and strengthen activism and transformation of water resources management practices in South Africa. They operate at multi-levels and the learning network is tracking and monitoring the impact of t-learning at local level amongst water activist groups, and their subsequent interactions with local and provincial government levels as well as national government level interaction.  

Learning Network 4:  Learning Network 3:  Challenging rigid institutional norms with t-learning across scales urban vulnerability settings (led by Dylan McGarry). This learning network is situated in Durban, South Africa and focuses on the controversial pathways that people who are food and water insecure have exacerbated vulnerabilities which occur with street-level drug addiction in the city. This case study will focus on shaping transgressive social learning processes which encourage multiple city-wide partners to develop more innovative, effective and humane responses to urban food, water and urban street-level drug use vulnerabilities in the city. The project examines the transgressive and expansive learning that is occurring between police, department of health (hospitals and clinics), social workers, faith-based communities, and suburban communities. Overall it will probe alternatives to violence as a response to urban vulnerability, using Empatheatre as a methodology that can facilitate t-learning in complex and culturally rigid learning environments where responses to vulnerable people are often violent in nature. The method uses embodied processes of story-telling as a means to bridge significant institutional gaps between police, department of health and vulnerable street youth and other community organisations. It involves creating a central narrative, maintaining the original verbatim text, and retelling these stories in a theatre environment.

Learning Network 5:  Fundisa [Teaching] for Change:  Transformative environmental learning through teacher education (led by Ingrid Schudel, Zintle Songqwaru, Caleb Mandikonza, Lebona Nkhahle and Sirkka Tshiningayamwe). This learning network focusses on t-learning processes that emerge with and between teachers and within a national learning network focussing on transformative environmental learning as developed through teacher education, in response to critical issues such as climate change, biodiversity, water scarcity and sustainable development. This learning network is linked to the national Eco-Schools network, and will investigate transformative, transgressive learning processes at local school-based level, at teacher education – teacher interaction level, and at national teacher education network levels.

So far, we are learning that boundary crossing processes are critical for t-learning in learning networks.  Additional insights show that t-learning involves giving attention to reframing processes which involve 1) navigating power relations, 2) ethics deliberations, 3) unearthing and mediating dimensions of of cognitive and epistemic justice, and 4) engaging the decolonizing dialectic of absence and emergence (Lotz-Sisitka, 2016).


We envisage further Learning Networks emerging within the South African case study, including but not limited to an ethics-led learning network led by Dr Lausanne Olvitt, an urban municipal climate change policy implementation t-learning network led by Professor Vogel, and a citizen sciences t-learning network focussing on biodiversity, water and climate change nexus concerns, led by Priya Vallabh.