iSimangaliso – a natural case study in sustainable leadership

23 Jan 2017

Last month the iSimangaliso Wetland Park World Heritage Site was the host Park for the first Sustainability Leadership Journey initiated through Wildlands and Global Nature Fund in conjunction with the Living Lakes Network. With Africa’s largest estuarine system, Lake St Lucia, being one of the ‘signature lakes’ in the Living Lakes Network, iSimangaliso formed the ideal backdrop and example of inclusive conservation for the international group of thinkers, leaders and sustainability practitioners to engage around some of the key issues affecting sustainability.

Lake St Lucia, Africa’s largest and oldest protected estuarine system, is one of the signature lakes in the international Living Lakes Network.
The group attending the first Sustainability Leadership Journey in iSimangaliso included representatives from countries such as Germany, Canada, Philippines, Burundi, Kenya, Columbia, Australia, India and China. About a third of the group were from Wildlands and the international delegates from NGOs forming part of the Living Lakes Network. (Photo credit: Kirsten Oliver)

The theme of the ‘Journey’ was on personal sustainability within the context of a volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous world. The aim was to bring together a powerful group of changemakers from South Africa and around the world, to share learning, and draw on collective strengths to identify changes necessary in their own lives and in existing systems in order to be more effective sustainability leaders. The daily programme saw participants sharing their sustainability leadership journeys to date; their challenges, successes and ideas for the future, and discussions around four core themes: People and the Environment, Social Entrepreneurship, Learning from Nature, Leadership and Learning.

Through these overarching themes and through participant’s experience, facilitated discussions and activities integrated a broad spectrum of the Millennium and Sustainable Development goals, particularly core areas such as: Clean Water & Sanitation, Poverty, Education, Gender Equality, Sustainable Cities & Communities, Climate Action and Partnerships for Development.

According to Simone Dale, Deputy-Director at Wildlands, hosting the journey in iSimangaliso sought to offer delegates “an understanding of what it’s taken to get iSimangaliso to where it is today and where it’s going, including the challenges of working with people and communities around parks. We also really wanted to hear the personal stories of the pioneers and their perspective on their roles as young leaders working for people and the environment, as we believe their opinions and contributions are crucial.”

Three of the young interns from iSimangaliso’s neighbouring communities who have now joined the iSimangaliso staff, shared their personal experiences with the delegation, along with iSimangaliso Research Manager Nerosha Govender who presented an overview of the Park and iSimangaliso’s conservation and development strategy. Above from left: Bongani Gumede presented on Training and empowerment, specifically the Park’s tour guiding, art and craft programmes; Nosipho Ngcobo spoke about the Park’s enterprise programme and Sifiso Vumase addressed the group on the organisation’s youth-based environmental education and awareness programmes.

iSimangaliso’s Research Manager Nerosha Govender, who led the presentations for the organisation, said that “the Sustainability Leadership group was very impressed with our newest recruits and found them quite inspirational. The Journey presented a sound basis for networking, sharing ideas on ‘best practice’, and developing local talent for sustainability leadership and innovative and inclusive conservation practice. Utilising as many local businesses as possible demonstrated the commitment by iSimangaliso and Wildlands to uplifting local communities and businesses.”


One of the priorities of the Journey was to allow delegates to be truly immersed in nature and experience numerous ways in which the Park is benefitting local businesses. Accommodation was in simple tents within the Park’s Sugarloaf campsite and the meetings were held under the trees. Delegates undertook a number of excursions through the Park including an estuary boat cruise subsidised by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife. Two of iSimangaliso’s local entrepreneur programme beneficiaries, Smangele Mbatha and Mary Barnes, were given the opportunity to cater for the group. According to iSimangaliso CEO Andrew Zaloumis, “Any event of this kind is viewed by iSimangaliso as an opportunity to optimise the benefits for our fledgling entrepreneurs by utilising their services wherever possible. This is one of our key principles in our approach to conservation and development.” (Photo credit: Hanno Langenhoven)

In their words:

Sifiso Vumase, iSimangaliso’s new Environmental Education Assistant, reflected that the “Environmental Education (EE) programme is very close to my heart and having a platform to engage with different conservation stakeholders on iSimangaliso EE trips and School Awards programme proved a good opportunity. I learned from them and they learned from me. The Sustainability Leadership Group were impressed that iSimangaliso conducts EE and awareness work with over 200 schools around the Park.”

Training and Capacity Building Officer, Bongani Gumede, said “It was a great experience for me to share my personal journey with youth like me, with people who are also involved in conservation. This session was different from the presentations I normally do, where we present mostly to people who don’t understand much about the type of conservation and development work that iSimangaliso does. The engagement was really great and critical as well, since we were presenting to experts. It gave me an impression that our organisation is leading by example and it’s a great honour to be associated with that.”

Nosipho Ngcobo, iSimangaliso’s Project Facilitation Assistant: “I had an opportunity to share the ground-breaking work that iSimangaliso is doing in uplifting the local entrepreneurs in neighbouring communities around the park especially the youth and women. All of the iSimangaliso presenters had to answer to one question that was asked: “What is the one thing that makes you wake up in the morning and want to go work for iSimangaliso?” This question was a highlight for me because we had to be introspective about our organisation. Respectively our answers were; skills development because we have been equipped with skills through bursary programmes and internship programmes. Flexibility because iSimangaliso staff members are allowed to express their personalities i.e. no uniforms and most importantly unity among staff members because we all work towards achieving the same goal.”

Wildlands CEO Dr Andrew Venter commented that “It was a real privilege to be able to base our inaugural Sustainability Leadership Journey in the spectacular iSimangaliso World Heritage area. World-renowned for its natural and cultural diversity, iSimangaliso enthralled and inspired our participants. A highlight was sharing leadership insights with the local iSimangaliso Park team whose deep love and passion for the area was obvious. This is a team that have demonstrated that it is possible to right and repair the destructive and short-term actions of previous generations, and it is their courage, vision and determination that gives us hope. There are few places on this planet that inspire and encourage sustainability in the way that iSimangaliso does.”

Media enquiries should be directed to Bronwyn Coppola +27 83 450 9111 or