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Exploring transformation in local government in a time of environmental change and thresholds: a case study of eThekwini municipality.

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Despite significant efforts over more than forty years, the challenge of achieving global sustainable development remains. This is becoming more urgent in light of new science that highlights the extent to which human development has now compromised critical earth systems, and the persistent levels of poverty and socio-economic inequality that continue to undermine human wellbeing. Within this context, calls for “transformation” in environmental governance to facilitate development pathways that are more sustainable have become more prominent. These calls have been accompanied by the emergence of a contemporary body of literature on transformation, but there are still varied opinions regarding what constitutes transformation and how this can be translated into implementation. This thesis begins to address this gap by exploring the concept of transformation in environmental governance, through the lens of a climate change adaptation case study in the local government of eThekwini Municipality (Durban, South Africa). Climate change is a critical part of addressing sustainable development and therefore exploring “transformative adaptation” is seen to be an important “pathfinder” in understanding transformation in the broader context of environmental governance. The case study analyses the changes that have taken place in the climate adaptation work of eThekwini Municipality and the factors that have catalysed, facilitated and acted as barriers to transformative adaptation. Interviews with municipal officials and non-municipal stakeholders provide the qualitative data for the thesis, and the outcomes are assessed against the characteristics of transformation and transformative adaptation that appear in the contemporary literature. Through this process, an assessment is made as to whether eThekwini Municipality’s climate adaptation work constitutes transformative adaptation, the extent to which the case study experience reflects similarities to, or differences from, the literature, and what this means in terms of transformation and transformative adaptation in different contexts. An important idea that emerges is that transformative adaptation is neither linear nor predictable. Rather, in order to initiate and sustain transformative adaptation, it is necessary to build a “landscape of change”, with multiple actors, projects and policy initiatives interacting at different times and across scales to facilitate transformation and transformative adaptation. The results of the study are then elevated to the context of environmental governance more broadly, to propose a conceptual framework for transformation in environmental governance. This framework: summarises the critical characteristics of transformation in environmental governance; describes the elements of the “landscape of change” (context, actors, shifting discourses, practices, catalysts, facilitating factors and barriers) that need to be considered in order to advance transformation; and highlights the importance of monitoring the evolving “landscape of change”, given its inherent complexity and unpredictability. In this way, the thesis highlights the complexity involved in initiating and sustaining transformation in environmental governance but also provides practical direction on how such processes might be framed. It also considers the implications of these outcomes for local governments in African cities. The thesis therefore contributes to the evolving transformation literature by translating the theoretical concept of transformation into the practical space of a local government. It also develops a conceptual framework for transformation in environmental governance that may be universally applicable beyond the case study context. In doing this, the thesis provides initial direction and a point of reflection for other cities that are also beginning to grapple with what transformation will mean in their context, and what might be required to more proactively facilitate this process.


Master of Science in Development Studies. University of KwaZulu-Natal, Durban 2018.


Theses - Development Studies.