On the green tightrope

2008-03-14 00:00

WHEN Mumsie Gumede first visited the offices of the Wildlife and Environmental Society of South Africa (Wessa) outside Howick, she fell in love with the place. It appealed to her need for wide open spaces – a place to think and breathe.

“There were zebra grazing on the lawn and the tea came on a tray. It felt like I was on holiday,” she says. “I jokingly told the Wessa people that if ever they had a vacancy, they should let me know.”

Which they did. When a position in Wessa’s Southern African Development Community (SADC) Regional Environmental Education Programme came up in 2001, they approached Gumede, who was working in the municipal environmental department in Cape Town, and asked her to apply.

Gumede says she didn’t have to think twice about accepting the position when it was eventually offered to her. “It’s the first time I’ve left a job and only served four weeks’ notice,” she says.

It wasn’t only the weather that she didn’t like about Cape Town. She found it difficult to integrate socially and was exposed to petty racism in her search for lodgings. Until then, because of the efforts of her father, her education at Inanda Seminary and the University of Swaziland and Botswana, and because she had lived mainly in Durban, she had been relatively protected from the harshness of apartheid. “Going to a place like Cape Town made me realise that I couldn’t be romantic about transformation,” she says. “It was not going to happen by itself.”

When Gumede made the decision to move to the KwaZulu-Natal midlands, her friends asked her: “Where is this place called Howick?”

“A friend in Malaysia said she couldn’t even find it on Google.”

But it was no move into obscurity. Five years later, Gumede was appointed the organisation’s CEO. She still relishes the experience of breezing through Howick’s “traffic”, parking under a tree and walking across the lawns to her office where, out of respect for the environment, “air-conditioner” is a dirty word and lights are turned on only when natural light won’t suffice.

As CEO, she is at the heart of a dynamic non-governmental organisation concerned with protecting the environment, raising awareness and drawing the public into environmental management. She describes it as a fluid context with many competing demands, a context that requires her to walk a tightrope between environmental extremism and practical, holistic thinking. “We need to look at the bigger picture,” she says. “Extremists who are caught up in their narrow viewpoints sadden me because they run the risk of ruining the work and reputation of hardworking environmentalists who get bundled up — and then dismissed — by the ‘bunny-hugger’ label.”

Gumede says her strengths lie less in leadership than in building networks, acting as a catalyst and a filler between the links of a strong chain. Although now in her 50s, she is still part of a strong network of “fine” women whom she met at Inanda Seminary school, the independent boarding school for girls which lies northwest of Durban and was founded in 1869 by American missionaries. “Knowing that there are outstanding women around me who can support me when it is needed helps to keep me going.”

Gumede says the school opened windows in her mind that might otherwise have remained closed during the apartheid-era seventies. “We were made to understand that women could do anything, that we were not inferior and that the sky is the limit. But there was also a lot of emphasis on how we reached that limit. It didn’t matter if you weren’t the brightest star, how you took that journey was also important.”

Gumede’s own journey involved finding a way to excel in the wake of three high-achieving older siblings and the expectations of her father. During her university studies in Swaziland and Botswana, she chose to focus on biology and the then relatively new field of environmental sciences after a brief flirtation with the idea of meteorology. “My dad kept asking me what I was going to do with a discipline like environmental science, but it suited me more than the hard sciences of medicine or veterinary science.”

Upon graduating, her father’s question had to be answered. Turning down a job counting elephants with the United Nations in Botswana, Gumede returned home to KwaZulu-Natal. Putting her equality principles into practice, the young Gumede answered a job advert for a white, male sugar cane farm manager. It was 1981. “I don’t know what I was thinking,” she says, “but I applied on the basis that, ‘of course, I was just as good as a white male’.”

Unsurprisingly, there was no response. But a month later, Gumede received a call from the sugar association’s experiment station. Her audacious application had done the rounds in the corridors of organised agriculture and had made some waves. But they were positive waves and secured Gumede her first job, which turned her focus to agriculture and economics and saw her take up study in these fields for four years at the University of Natal in Pietermaritzburg. Her marriage to an attorney in Durban turned Gumede’s focus for a time to her family of three children.

During the mid-eighties she started to work part-time at Self-Development International, a private organisation offering personalised skills development with particular emphasis on English and numeracy. “There were a number of black people being promoted at that time into positions for which they lacked certain skills, such as report-writing. We offered this kind of functional skilling,” says Gumede.

It was in this environment that Gumede re-engaged with the joy of learning and being part of a team. She discovered her talent for organising as well as pinpointing and developing people’s strengths. She ended up managing the unit where she worked for a total of nine years.

In 1994, during the country’s historic first democratic elections, she worked at a Durban polling station. “It was fantastic to be part of such an important event,” she says.

In 1996, Gumede’s life seemed to come to full circle when she landed a job in the municipal environmental section of the City of Durban. “At long last, I was back in my field.”

Today, Gumede sees environmental science as coming into its own. The national energy crisis, she believes, has gone some way towards vindicating the concerns about issues of sustainability raised by environmentalists over time. “This crisis has helped us to focus, take a close look at our lifestyles and to think laterally about what we are doing and how.

“People often criticise environmentalists for ‘talking on behalf of nature’,” she says, “but when nature starts talking for itself, it is always a disaster. So why wait for a disaster? Wessa has given me an opportunity to contribute towards its mission of caring for the Earth by ensuring that our work and lifestyles contribute to the wellbeing of all life.”

When Gumede thinks back to her childhood growing up in Inanda, she says she has hope for the future. “When I was young, there was no waste collection and there was litter on the roads. Now waste collection is in place and the stench has for the most part disappeared. My children will never understand my euphoria over that change. They have higher expectations.”

And this is good, believes Gumede. “Our children have a bright future. Education should give them the skills to make the decisions we are failing to make. It will help them see the whole picture, not just pieces of it.”

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