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Change the world


Nelson Mandela University has entered into a research partnership with the French National Centre for Scientific Research (CNRS) and the University of Lyon 1, which will see the institution being home to a first of its kind collaborative research and training hub.

Vice-Chancellor, Prof. Sibongile Mutwa, and CNRS chief executive officer, Dr Antoine Petit, launched the International Research Laboratory (IRL) in Port Elizabeth today (5 December 2019) – bringing the number of such labs in Africa to three.

The International Research Laboratory, as labs established by the CNRS outside of France are known, will be based at the Sustainability Research Unit (SRU) on the university’s George Campus. With the theme Reconciling ecological and human adaptations for biosphere-based sustainability (Rehabs), the research is at the confluence of conservation and sustainability science, with a strong focus on promoting longer social-ecological systems research.

The CNRS has labs placed in most of the French Universities and has 75 IRLs in foreign countries, three of which are established at African universities. The CNRS labs support universities in the research training of postgraduate students registered at the host university.

Speaking at the launch at the University’s South Campus, Prof Muthwa said the partnership bode well with the institution’s efforts to preserve the legacy of Nelson Mandela.

“I am sure that you are aware that Nelson Mandela was a strong advocate for the environment and sustainability, and cared deeply for the earth as our livelihood as human beings,” Prof Muthwa said.

“As the university that bears his name, we are beholden to carry forward the legacy of Nelson Mandela and the principles that he fought for and stood for as a leader. Because of this, one of the founding values of the university is environmental stewardship. We strive to make this value come alive in the intellectual work that we pursue, both in our teaching and in our research. The partnership that we are entering into together as CNRS and Mandela University will provide a platform to demonstrate this commitment.”

Dr Petit said the labs were the highest level of commitment by the CNRS to international research initiatives.

“We are very happy to have this partnership with your university. This is a very important subject for our respective nations, but mostly for the entire world. Preserving biodiversity is crucial for humanity, and towards this, we need to have world class research,” Dr Petit said.

Mandela University Associate Professor Hervé Fritz has been instrumental in putting together the IRL partnership, building on the existing strong long-term academic partnership between the institutions.

Human-Nature interface

“The idea is to develop an understanding of the position and effect of humans in the overall ecosystem, in the way the biosphere works, and how the natural environment benefits humans. Linked to this is how you set up the governance of these critical issues,” Prof Fritz explains.

“We address this through cross-cutting projects, such as a project researching how to make multifunctional landscapes sustainable in delivering the ecosystem services humans rely on. Another will be on how to manage livestock farming hand-in-hand with environmental stewardship so that livelihoods and the environment can both flourish. Or how to plan a town around ecological services, such as water; how to incorporate biodiversity in livelihoods in the face of climate change, and what adaptations are required to cope with environmental risks.

“The project would include citizens and stakeholders as we need to bring them together to create or strengthen the ecological connection. By unravelling how people understand the environment and ecosystems, and how they practise their production systems, we can look at how changes could be introduced to advance production, ecosystem and biosphere sustainability.”

An ambitious South African-French partnership

Funding provided by the partner institutions is predominantly for PhD candidates and postdoctoral fellows, but some master’s level students will be considered. There will be reciprocal research visits between France and South Africa, with a cotutelle (joint doctorate) agreement envisaged so that PhDs will be recognised by both Nelson Mandela University and the University of Lyon.

This new IRL REHABS increases the number of International Research Laboratories in Africa to 3, out of 75 in the world. The CNRS plans to grow its collaboration in the continent during the next few years. It has a representative office in Pretoria since 1995, today joint with two other French research institutes (IRD, Cirad) : 

Excerpts from the IRL proposal document read: As this continent transforms over the next few decades, it will offer unique opportunities to explore ecosystem-based solutions and new adaptation pathways to global change, to improving human well-being while considering the sustainability of the biosphere.

The societal context of this transdisciplinary hub initiative stems from the conference Seedbeds of Transformation for Africa: The Role of Science with Society and the Sustainable Development Goals in Africa, held in May 2018 in Port Elizabeth. (

Africa is expected to be the fastest developing continent in the next 30 years. The associated infrastructure development in the context of climate change will impact on Africa’s ecosystems and will lead to the emergence of several ecological frontiers – areas where the ecological foundation of Africa’s growth could be chipped away or destroyed altogether by development.

We should therefore adopt the vision that all sustainable development goals are interconnected. Hence solutions for promoting biosphere-based sustainability sciences and achieving inclusive environmental governance increasingly rely on the use of a social-ecological system lens to frame research questions, and inter- and transdisciplinary methods to conduct our studies.

Sustainability Research Unit

CNRS Institute Ecology & Environment:


Zandile Mbabela                                                                    

Media Manager

Nelson Mandela University

078 164 0449


Cécile Bégard

Communications officer

Joint CNRS, IRD and Cirad office in Southern Africa

082 658 0636

Contact information
Ms Zandile Mbabela
Media Manager
Tel: 0415042777