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Minister Bonginkosi Madikizela and Sean Stuttaford (Chairman of Garden Cities) (on the left) were on hand when Zamile Wildon Jiya (third from left) received his house at Greenville Garden City on Thursday, together with Project co-oridnator Thembi Sithole, John Matthews, CEO of Garden Cities, Premier Helen Zille and Councillor Benedicta van Minnen

Some of the first houses to be built at Greenville Garden City

Garden Cities' MRCT receives widespread praise
- By Andrew Bennett

Greenville Garden City’s Mosselbank River Conservation Team (MRCT) project received widespread praise recently after it was mentioned during a presentation at the Water Institute of South Africa (WISA) biennial conference. Held from 24 to 27 June 2018 at the Cape Town International Convention Centre, the WISA conference brought together water sector thought leaders across government, academia, and commerce and industry under the title theme of ‘Breaking Boundaries and Connecting Ideas’.

Presentations and workshops at the conference reflected the global shift in water management practices from purely technical solutions towards greater focus on international co-operation, building partnerships, and the participation of local communities in improving water and sanitation management. During one of the sessions Andrew Bennett, an environmental consultant to Garden Cities NPC (RF) and a member of the University of Cape Town’s (UCT) Future Water Institute presented his research on Communities of Practice, which included the Greenville MRCT as a case study.

“Ordinary people taking ownership of their local water resources and working together with authorities is an important part of sustainable water resources management in South Africa. Citizens can provide support and expertise where local and national governments can’t,” says Bennett, who quickly adds the caveat that “participation of local communities, however, doesn’t just happen; it needs to be developed intentionally and collaboratively. “

According to Bennett’s research the concept of a ‘community of practice’ is gaining worldwide attention as a framework for enabling collaboration across levels and scales in a variety of contexts. Organisations seeking better performance are using the concept to connect people who would not necessarily interact and stimulate the flow of information and exchange of ideas. “We are living in an age of complexity and uncertainty brought about by climate change and rapid urbanisation, and we quickly need to find and share new ways of thinking about and using natural resources wisely,” says Bennett. “As a global society we do have the knowledge to solve our Sustainability problems but what we don’t have as a system (or rather have lost or forgotten) is the capability to learn from each other and spread innovation.”

A community of practice is a contemporary theory of learning, and is defined as ‘a group of people who share a common concern or passion for something they do, and learn how to do it better as they interact with each other regularly.’ Communities of practice operate mostly in informal networks and are spaces where people build trust and develop relationships that inspire tangible action.

Bennett says: “The concept is not new - it has been around for as long as people have been telling stories – but is a reminder that learning is a fundamentally social process. As human beings we learn best when we participate in and relate our knowledge of something to an actual experience. People develop meaning through their social contexts, testing their understanding through action and reflection.”

The idea to establish Greenville Garden City’s MRCT was birthed in community of practice thinking. When faced with the requirement to provide environmental education material to the community as part of Greenville’s conservation management plan (CMP), Garden Cities NPC (RF) saw an opportunity to contribute towards lasting change by investing in the ability of the local community to educate itself. Although a number of primary and high schools have and are still to be built by Garden Cities NPC (RF) at Greenville, an important educational component still needed to be addressed - that of informal or social learning. Social learning is the learning that happens when ideas and understanding spread from individuals to wider social units through interactions within social networks.

Establishing the MRCT began in July 2017 with the formation of the Greenville Environmental Collaborative, a broader initiative aimed at engaging the range of stakeholders in the Fisantekraal area and building partnerships that would work to protect the ecological and social value of the Mosselbank River and surrounding wetland. This included a plan to develop the environmental skills of the local Greenville residents. Taking their cue from the community of practice approach, the leadership of the collaborative looked to examples of other community-based river restoration projects such as the Friends of the Liesbeek (FOL) in the southern suburbs of Cape Town. FOL, which was established in 1991 and has achieved great success in the practice of maintaining and rehabilitating an urban river, quickly became the model for the MRCT and the two groups were brought together to share experiences and learn from one another. In less than a year the MRCT has become the flagship project of the Greenville Environmental Collaborative, and an active learning hub. It is an example of an emerging community of practice with a core of eight Greenville residents who volunteer their time to work and learn together. The project has already secured external funding for personal protective clothing for the river team and equipment beyond the initial support it has received from Garden Cities NPC (RF) while other sponsors have also come on board to provide training in first aid and basic administration.

This, however, is just the beginning for the MRCT and there is still plenty of work to do says Bennett. A community of practice is a dynamic social process and must be cultivated. It requires skilled facilitators and leaders to build and keep momentum, and ensure there are enough willing participants. There will be highs and lows, and members will come and go but ultimately the Greenville community itself will define and sustain it. The key for the MRCT is to focus consistently on the three interlinking elements of a community of practice: What do we care about? Who cares about it? What do we do about it?

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