This article was written by Julia Botha for The Declaration (the journal of the Association of University Leaders for a Sustainable Future)

Durban is a thriving port on the east coast of South Africa. The largest city of the country's second most populace province, KwaZulu-Natal, it is a microcosm of South Africa a society in transition. Environmental conservation in this urban setting presents an enormous challenge. As more and more homeless people move to the city, in search of work, the few remaining open spaces come under increasing pressure. Conservation is simply not an issue for a man who cannot afford to clothe and feed his family. To those who are more fortunate and privileged, conservation means, at best, the rhino and the elephant. Most have never even thought of conservation in the urban area. In their quest for development and "improvement" these "eco-vandals" continue, as they have for many years, to bulldoze the "bush" and replace it with neatly trimmed and manicured gardens full of exotic plants. To ensure that these alien plants survive and bloom, they are regularly sprayed with pesticides. Some of these plants are actually alien invaders which, in the absence of the natural enemies of their countries of origin, are rapidly replacing what little remains of our natural biodiversity.

It is against this backdrop that the Durban campus of the University of Natal, which is located on a ridge between a first and a third world area of the city, faces the challenge of providing environmental leadership in the year 2000 (and beyond).


Looking back 70 years, aerial photographs from 1931 show Howard College, which was the first building of the Durban campus, surrounded by pristine grassland, looking over a huge coastal forest "Stella Bush" to the sea beyond. This would have been an environmental paradise. However, its value went unrecognised as the area gradually became built up. It is interesting that 50 years were to elapse before there is any record of a "Campus Conservation Committee". This group of four people held its first meeting in April 1981.

For the next decade this Committee, later to become the Durban Campus Environment Committee (DCEC), was largely concerned with the natural, undeveloped environment and with landscaping. The horticulturist of the day did much to promote the use of, and thus increase awareness of, South African plants, although these were not always indigenous to the Durban area.


The idea of setting aside a portion of the Durban campus as a natural area was mooted soon after the formation of the conservation committee. An appropriate area, initially called the Western Valley Reserve, was identified. Over the ensuing years, while the horticulturist and his staff battled to keep alien invader plants under control in the reserve, consideration was given to such issues as an appropriate name, defining the boundaries, and how the area should be managed. However it was only in 1993, after the existence of the reserve was threatened by the development of tennis courts, that the University Council was approached to declare the area a nature reserve in perpetuity. The boundaries were finally formalised, a map and information board was erected and the name "Msinsi" was chosen, after uMsinsi the Zulu name for the beautiful Coral Tree Erythrina lysistemon which is found in the reserve.


Coral Tree (Erythrina lysistemon)


The conservation of this seven hectares of grassland and regenerating forest has certainly been one of the environmental success stories on the Durban campus. It is home to a variety of birds (over 100 species have been recorded to date), as well as to other wildlife such as the banded mongoose (Mungos mungo). It is an educational resource, for our students and local school children, and is used as a recreational area (e.g. for walking and bird-watching) by residents in the area. Most of the maintenance work, such as the ongoing removal of alien invader plants, is done by a volunteer group the Friends of Msinsi Reserve. This voluntary group, which has worked regularly every month for nearly ten years, is a joint initiative between members of the Durban Campus Environment Committee and of the Wildlife and Environment Society of South Africa, a non- governmental conservation organisation.

The maintenance of Msinsi Reserve's grassland is particularly important, as there is very little natural grassland left around Durban. Fire is essential to prevent this area from being gradually encroached by bush clumps and turned into forest. The regular burn initially presented a major management problem. All the safety issues were dealt with, but local residents complained about smoke and blackened laundry! This was turned into an educational opportunity when the children of the local school were present to learn about environmental management.


It was during the late 1980s that a group of visionary conservationists developed the Durban Metropolitan Open Space System (D-MOSS). Recognising that a few small, isolated natural areas in the city would not be sustainable, they proposed a plan of open areas linked across the city so as to provide corridors for seed dispersal and the movement of wildlife. A post-graduate student of the University of Natal, who was later to chair the Durban Campus Environmental Committee, was involved in this process. Her research highlighted the important position of the University, in the Durban Metropolitan Open Space system.

Not only Msinsi Nature Reserve, but other remaining natural areas of the campus are also an integral part of the D-MOSS link. Accordingly, in June 1997, the entire Durban Campus applied to be registered as a Conservancy with the KwaZulu-Natal Parks Board.

Campus landscaping has now been refined to the almost exclusive use of locally indigenous plants, i.e. those occurring naturally in the Durban area. This, together with limiting the use of poisons to the essential (such as on sports fields), obviously creates the type of habitat optimal for our local birds and other wildlife. This frequently draws favourable comment from visitors, who come to the University to view the harbour and city from the raised vantage point of the campus. Likewise, many staff recognise that they are privileged to work in an environment where the secretive Natal Robin (Cossypha natalensis) still sings!

Natal Robin

As the coastal region of KwaZulu-Natal is naturally forest and grassland, the effect created is not that of bright, garish exotic gardens. To satisfy those in search of something less "green", colourful indigenous plants are used in the landscaping where possible. In addition, an exciting new architectural initiative is the decoration of buildings using bright, but tasteful and well-chosen, colours to offset the natural vegetation.

The existence of the Conservancy provides the platform for encouraging residents and land-owners, in all the areas adjoining the University, to pursue environmentally-friendly approaches. Some neighbours have already joined the initiative and are eradicating alien invader plants and using appropriate vegetation.

The western part of the campus, behind the ridge is much less developed than the eastern, sea-facing land. Various areas here, particularly a wetland area, have been identified as being important links in Durban Metropolitan Open Space System and it will be important that we ensure their conservation during future development. Currently a pond is being constructed in this area to accommodate amphibians which have to be relocated during the construction of a road to the west.


It was towards the end of 1996 that the DCEC was to face its first real challenge. We discovered, about six months before the work was to begin, that a new student residence was to be built on a piece of self-generating forest on the eastern part of the campus. Our concern at the fact that no environmental planning preceded any developments on the campus was conveyed to the Deputy Vice-Chancellor. He agreed to the appointment of a consultant to carry out an urgent Environmental Impact Assessment (EIA). The assessment contended that the area in question was "a significant habitat in the urban context". It was also part of an important corridor in the Durban Metropolitan Open Space System. The Impact Assessment concluded that the proposed development should take place without the use of this area.

Despite this, the University's developers stood firm indicating that it was impossible to make modifications to the site plans and still meet the required deadlines. The DCEC did not give up. We pointed out that the University's Mission Statement declares that "The University is committed to the preservation and conservation of the environment and the natural resources of the region". We researched previous planning documents for proposed alternative sites. We enlisted the help of the KwaZulu-Natal Parks Board, the parent body of our conservancy, the Wildlife and Environment Society and the Environmental Manager of the City.

Finally, the residence was built on an alternative site, an adjacent, old and under- used students' parking lot. Not only were all the environmentally-sensitive areas left intact, but the important trees within the actual building area were saved. A construction protocol was put in place, an environmental consultant monitored the entire process, and the resulting residence was a landmark in environmentally-friendly development. It epitomised a completely new mind set. It is fitting that this residence has just been named the Pius Langa Residence after the University's first Black Chancellor.

Many things were to flow from this experience. A University of Natal Open Space System was proposed by the DCEC to overlay on the Guide Plan which had been drawn up in 1991. Policy documents were changed to include a requirement for EIAs to be done before future developments.

Co-incidentally, although not related to this project, the University's Environmental Policy, which had been conceived by the DCEC eight years earlier, was finally accepted as University policy early in 1998.

Although this was a watershed and represented major progress, problems are by no means over. The possibility of further new developments is ever present. Even though EIAs are now required, there is still a need for an overall assessment of the entire campus environment in relation to the opportunities and constraints regarding development. To this end, the DCEC recently commissioned a Strategic Enviromental Assessment (SEA). To save costs, and to involve students in their own campus, this was conducted by post-graduate students of the School of Life and Environmental Sciences. The SEA identified four strategic issues that should feature in future University plans. These are conservation and Durban Metropolitan Open Space System links, integrated catchment management, transparency in planning and aesthetics. Although there is now an Open Space Plan, it is too broad and needs to be refined to pinpoint areas of no development versus those of careful development. To assist in this, audits of the campus, which record vegetation on a GIS system, are currently underway.

Much work is still to be done, and much vigilance is required, if future developments are to be environmentally sustainable.


Conservation of the campus environment is the work of a small, dedicated group. Interestingly enough, currently all but two are drawn from professions other than environmental science an architect, a geologist, a physiologist, a pharmacologist and an administrator. The University's horticulturist continues to play an invaluable role. Unfortunately there are still members of the wider university community, both staff and students, who remain unaware of campus environmental issues. Attempts are being made to address this and to involve a wider group of people. Annually everyone is invited to participate in Arbor Week celebrations. This may take the form of tree planting, removal of alien invader plants, clearing litter or guided walks in the Msinsi Nature Reserve. A recent major boost to awareness and interest has been the labelling of many large trees across the campus. Funds generated from paper recycling were used to purchase the labels which, in addition to the botanical name, give the plant name in English and Zulu. Outdoor furniture, made from recycled plastic, is also in use in the campus gardens.


Over many years there have been efforts to promote an ethos of "Reduce, Reuse, Recycle". These have met with variable success. The paper recycling programme, in the University's newly named Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine, has been a great achievement. Here sufficient funds are generated to provide small, short-term, loans to needy students; the money is literally "recycled"! In other faculties recycling programs have not been sustainable in the long term. This has lead to a new bold initiative by the University Administration. They have recently transferred their waste disposal contract to a company which will sort all waste. Now, only items which cannot be reused or recycled will go into the city's landfill.


There have been many successes to date. A viable nature reserve on the campus has been one of these. It has been said, however, that in conservation "any success is temporary and any defeat is permanent". In these days of relevance and delivery we will have to ensure that all the people benefit from, and recognise the value of, such an area.

One battle with University developers has been hard won with the correct placement of the new residence. But the struggle of ensuring that future developments are environmentally friendly is by no means over. By virtue of its very position, at the top of the ridge, the campus is the interface between some of the most expensive real estate in the city, on one side, and a burgeoning third world community on the other. The key to preserving what little is left of our natural heritage, is education of these very diverse people. Whatever their background and education, most of these people remain environmentally illiterate. There is much work to be done. The struggle continues! 



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