Looking back and into the future with Professor James Gambiza

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[L-R] Professor 'Mabokang Monnapula-Mapesela (Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic and Student Affairs); Professor James Gambiza (Environmental Science); Professor Sizwe Mabizela (Vice-Chancellor); Dr Kwezi Mzilikazi (Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation & Strategic Partnerships). 
[PIC CREDIT: Siviwe Mxuma]
[L-R] Professor 'Mabokang Monnapula-Mapesela (Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Academic and Student Affairs); Professor James Gambiza (Environmental Science); Professor Sizwe Mabizela (Vice-Chancellor); Dr Kwezi Mzilikazi (Deputy Vice-Chancellor: Research, Innovation & Strategic Partnerships). [PIC CREDIT: Siviwe Mxuma]

By Bukamuso Sebata

Rhodes University's Eden Grove Blue Lecture Theatre was abuzz with excitement as scholars from various fields gathered to witness the inaugural address of Professor James Gambiza. The event, a prestigious milestone in an academic's career, marks the conferral of full professor status on a scholar who has showcased exceptional scholarly contributions to their discipline.

In his welcoming speech, Rhodes University Vice-Chancellor Professor Sizwe Mabizela hailed Prof Gambiza's remarkable achievements and contributions throughout his academic journey.

With an impressive academic background, Prof. James Gambiza holds various qualifications, including a PhD and MSc in Biological Sciences from the University of Zimbabwe and an MEd and a PGDipHE from Rhodes University. His expertise lies in innovative teaching and adult education, particularly in conservation and rangeland management, where he promotes sustainable practices.

Prof Gambiza's strengths in systems thinking, research, and managing the human-nature interface have positively impacted Rhodes University and other institutions throughout his distinguished career. His commitment to knowledge transfer is evident through extensive training initiatives, and he has received notable recognition, awards, and accolades for his teaching, research, and publications, showcasing his dedication to the academic community.

For Prof Gambiza, the inaugural lecture titled "Land degradation in a changing world: Looking back and into the future" reflected profoundly on his life's work. The lecture delved into the pressing environmental issue of land degradation in the 21st century, negatively impacting over 3.2 billion people worldwide. Despite existing efforts to combat it, the global area of degraded land continues to expand, leaving behind remnants of failed development projects.

Using the analogy of a "systems journey," Prof Gambiza's lecture evaluated past approaches to addressing land degradation and presented historical timelines of global and national efforts. He emphasised the need to rethink the implementation of development programmes, teaching methods, and research approaches to tackle complex issues like land degradation effectively.

During the lecture, Prof Gambiza highlighted the interconnectedness of various challenges, such as climate change, biodiversity loss, and soil mismanagement, underscoring the urgency of adopting a systems approach to address these complex problems collaboratively. He drew attention to the devastating effects of extreme weather events and stressed the importance of adopting a holistic perspective to create a sustainable future for humanity.

The lecture also announced that Rhodes University would offer a short course on systems thinking, taught by Dr Jai-Clifford Holmes, to further enhance the institution's focus on addressing environmental challenges. Prof Gambiza emphasised the importance of exploring, visioning, and analysing leverage points to engage effectively with complex problems. He discussed the concept of planetary boundaries, urging the need to stay within these limits to avoid overshooting. To raise awareness and motivate action, he suggested creating a song on planetary boundaries and the doughnut economics model we can sing together with both local and global communities.

The concept of doughnut economics, which advocates balancing the social foundation and ecological ceiling for sustainable development, was also discussed during the lecture. Prof Gambiza stressed the importance of positive trajectories and triggering positive tipping points with the help of keystone actors or agents of change. He mentioned nature-based solutions and the initiative of nature-positive universities as essential components of addressing land degradation and other environmental problems.

Another framework introduced during the lecture was the coupled infrastructure system (CIS), which offers a way to study social-ecological systems and find innovative solutions to environmental challenges.

Throughout the presentation, Prof Gambiza shared personal experiences and concerns about the planet's current state, underscoring the importance of taking action during the decisive decade between 2020 and 2030. He stressed the need for collective efforts in tackling complex, interrelated problems like land degradation, climate change, and biodiversity loss.

Drawing on various international and African case studies and initiatives, Prof Gambiza highlighted the significance of engaging multiple stakeholders and employing diverse strategies to combat land degradation and promote ecological restoration. Specific projects in the Eastern Cape, where sustainable land management practices were implemented in collaboration with local communities to improve livelihoods, were also mentioned. Another important forth-coming programme is the Great Green Wall National Action Plan for South Africa and the Southern African Development Community (SADC).

The inaugural address concluded with a passionate call to action. Prof Gambiza urged the audience to proactively seek solutions and engage in projects promoting ecological restoration and combating land degradation. He emphasised the power of collaboration and utilising local resources to impact the environment and people's lives positively.

The event celebrating Prof James Gambiza's promotion to the rank of full professor was not only a recognition of his scholarly achievements but also an inspirational moment for Rhodes University's academic community. With his wealth of knowledge and commitment to addressing environmental challenges, Prof Gambiza's inaugural lecture left a lasting impression on all who attended, sparking a sense of responsibility and motivation to work collectively for a sustainable and prosperous future.

To watch this inaugural lecture, go to: