UP launches national network to support UN Sustainable Development Goals

Posted on March 10, 2022

The University of Pretoria (UP) has launched SDSN South Africa, a national network for the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Solutions Network (SDSN).

The SDSN is an international initiative that marshals global scientific and technological expertise to promote practical solutions for sustainable development. The aim of the national network is to mobilise and support South African universities and other leading research institutions to promote the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) in South Africa, as well as the country’s contribution to the goals globally.

The launch of SDSN South Africa during a hybrid event at the UP Future Africa Campus included a live-streamed moderated panel discussion followed by a cocktail event. The panel discussion featured a keynote address by Professor Labode Popoola, Chairperson of SDSN Nigeria and Professor of Forest Economics and Sustainable Development at the University of Ibadan.

Prof Popoola recognised the importance of education, research, policy analysis and global cooperation for sustainable development, saying with UP as host of the South African network, “the SDSN’s core principle of mobilising knowledge institutions and their associated expertise to generate and promote innovative and practical solutions for sustainable development is echoed”.

UP Vice-Chancellor and Principal Professor Tawana Kupe, who chairs SDSN South Africa, moderated the panel discussion and focused on the “benefits, challenges and opportunities involved in complex partnerships”, as well as the “significance of transdisciplinary and trans-sectoral partnerships between universities” and other role-players to accelerate the implementation of the SDGs.

From left: Dr Thandi Mgwebi, Deputy Vice Chancellor: Research, Innovation, and Internationalisation Nelson Mandela University; Professor Peter Lennie, Executive Director of the Worldwide Universities Network; Dr Heidi Hackman, Interim Director Future Africa at UP; and Professor Tawana Kupe, Chair of SDSN South Africa Network.

The panel discussion further saw representatives from various sectors examine the value of university networks and the benefit of higher education institutions entering partnerships with one another and across sectoral boundaries, rather than acting alone. Lawrence Matemba, Acting Head of Policy and Research Services in the Presidency, talked about the importance of the national network in increasing contact between research institutions and policy makers. Dr Thandi Mgwebi, Deputy Vice-Chancellor for Research, Innovation and Internationalisation at Nelson Mandela University, and Prof Peter Lennie, Executive Director of the Worldwide Universities Network, contributed from an academic perspective and reflected on national and international partnerships for sustainable development. Finally, Dr Heide Hackmann, Interim Director of Future Africa at the University of Pretoria provided a reflective summary during her closing address, and highlighted four points from the panel discussion:

Pursuing universal goals in a divided world. Dr Hackmann highlighted the critical role of science and diplomacy to address the challenges posed by the current global context, from a global pandemic to geopolitical tensions and the threat of war.

The role of science. It is vital to identify pathways to global sustainability and assist in the creation and promotion of policies and public action that will enable societies to travel along these pathways.

The nature of partnerships. The need is for action-oriented transformative partnerships that lead to real impact across science and society as well as openness to diversity, equality and inclusivity of ideas and people.

Recognising that we all believe in the value of partnerships. It is vital that we transcend boundaries between fields, institutions and sectors, even if there are existing tensions and competition creating obstacles for an effective network. As Dr Hackmann said, “No single country, no single discipline and no single institution can tackle the SDGs on their own.”

Dr Yolande Steenkamp, manager of SDSN South Africa acknowledged  members of the audience attending online and those at the venue: “Your participation testifies to your personal commitment to building a future that gives expression to a way of being human that relates respectfully and sustainably to both economy and ecosystem, expanding our sense of community so that no one is left behind. We count on you and your role in localising sustainable development in South Africa and beyond, on the continent.”

From left: Elma Akob, Head of Marketing and Communications at the Albert Luthuli Leadership Institute ; Professor Tawana Kupe, Chair of SDSN South Africa Network; Professor Peter Lennie, Executive Director of the Worldwide Universities Network; Dr Thandi Mgwebi, Deputy Vice Chancellor: Research, Innovation, and Internationalisation Nelson Mandela University; and Lawrence Matemba, Acting Head Policy and Research Services for the Presidency.

Recognising the active role that UP as a leading research-intensive university plays in Africa’s economic growth and social development, the University’s executive leadership assimilated sustainable development as a strategic imperative. This has entailed embedding sustainable development principles and practices into the fabric of the University, and mobilising its core functions to support the achievement of South Africa’s National Development Plan, the African Union’s Agenda 2063 and the SDGs.

In its proposal to host the South African network, UP stated that it envisaged the network playing a key role as a catalyst to accelerate the achievement of national goals and the SDGs in the country. The University seeks transformational change through transdisciplinarity, collaboration and co-creation, all in the spirit of mutual benefit. Hosting SDSN South Africa, along with other sustainability initiatives such as the South African SDG Hub, which aims to facilitate evidence-informed policy making in the country, testifies to the sustainability leadership of UP.

The SA SDG Hub and SDSN South Africa are both housed in the Albert Luthuli Leadership Institute (ALLI) in the Faculty of Economic and Management Sciences. Professor Derick de Jongh, Director of the ALLI, said that this work forms an important part of the three-tiered focus of the ALLI, namely leadership in sustainability, context, and accountability.

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