Women's Month 2023: Dr Rochine Melandri Steenkamp

Women’s Month 2023: Dr Rochine Melandri Steenkamp

August is Women’s Month, and this year the National Research Foundation (NRF) is celebrating the remarkable contributions that have been made by women researchers for the betterment of humanity. We thank all participants for sharing their stories with us.

Dr Rochine Melandri Steenkamp is a Grant Officer at Sustainable Energy Africa. She received funding from the NRF for her PhD studies.

What impact did the NRF have on your studies/career?

In 2019, I secured a Grantholder-linked Doctoral Scholarship through the DSI-NRF South African Research Chair (SARChI) in Cities, Law, and Environmental Sustainability. This scholarship allowed me to pursue full-time Doctoral studies from 2019 to 2021 under the Chair.

Within the framework of the SARChI initiative, I conducted my own research and participated in several projects. I also attended numerous international and national conferences, workshops, and seminars. The NRF grant provided me with the time and resources necessary to focus on my research, leading to the submission of two manuscripts for publication in peer-reviewed journals.

The Research Chair, with the support of the NRF, offered me a unique opportunity to develop skills beyond research and academia. I interacted with diverse stakeholders through our projects, including municipalities and researchers from various interdisciplinary fields which truly made me appreciate the unique and important work the Chair was engaging in. I also learnt how to design and manage social media and web content, and I was able to informally co-supervise postgraduate students and played an active role in various events hosted by the Chair, serving as presenter, facilitator, or moderator.

Throughout my Doctoral studies, I engaged with other researchers within the Chair, collaborating on various initiatives. Collectively, our niche areas focused on issues of critical importance for sustainability in South Africa, providing me with a distinct perspective on these important matters. This experience has been instrumental in my academic and personal growth.

What has been your study/career journey?

In 2011, I graduated with distinction from Bongani High School, located in the small Northern Cape town of Douglas. As a child, I was drawn towards the law, harbouring an innate sense of justice and a curious nature that prompted constant questioning. With that in mind, in 2012, I pursued an LLB degree at North-West University (NWU). My initial ambition was to serve articles of clerkship and ultimately become an attorney. However, securing these articles became challenging, given the stringent requirements of having personal transportation and the modest remuneration of R4000-R7000 monthly, both of which seemed unfeasible for me, resulting in a period of stress and uncertainty as I did not know what other options were available.

In my final undergraduate year, I discovered a passion for Environmental Law, thanks to the guidance of my lecturer and dissertation supervisor, Prof Willemien du Plessis. Upon her advice, I enrolled in the LLM in Environmental Law and Governance programme at NWU in 2016. This move allowed me to secure an Academic Assistant position within the Faculty of Law, thus partially funding my studies. In that same year, the faculty nominated me for an institutional bursary to nurture future academics from disadvantaged backgrounds, which offered exposure and growth in teaching, research, and academia.

As an Academic Assistant, I guest lectured for various modules, reinforcing my love for teaching and learning. At this point in time, it became clear to me that my future lay in academia, and further studies would be inevitable. Even as I worked full-time as an Academic Assistant and as a writing consultant outside those hours, I successfully completed my LLM courses in 2016. In 2017, under the guidance of my LLM supervisor, Prof Anel du Plessis, I began work on my mini-dissertation on the role of local government in cultural heritage resource management in South Africa. A scholarship that same year allowed me to spend a semester at the Netherlands’ Tilburg University, where I focused on international law, external relations, and human rights law.

Returning in 2018 with renewed academic enthusiasm, I decided to expand my LLM research on cultural heritage, linking it to climate change, human security, and heritage protection. I enrolled for my LLD at NWU, but balancing my research with my roles as a project assistant for a sustainable cities project, a writing consultant, and an academic assistant, I was unable to do any tangible work on my research. So, when presented with the opportunity to pursue my Doctoral studies under the newly established South African Research Chair in Cities, Law and Environmental Sustainability, led by Prof Anel du Plessis, I jumped at the opportunity. Thus, I began my full-time Doctoral studies as part of the inaugural student cohort.

As a full-time researcher from 2019 to 2021, I dived into the notion of human security, now focusing my Doctoral studies on water security and its implications for water management at local government level. Although the plan was to finish my studies in 2020/2021, the emergence of Covid-19 and my diagnosis of major depression and a severe anxiety disorder made this unrealistic. Despite my mental health challenges, I leaned on the support of my promotors, friends, family, and faith, successfully completing my studies and producing work that I am proud of. I received my Doctor of Law on June 21, 2023.

Currently, I work as a Grant Officer for Sustainable Energy Africa, a non-profit organisation based in Cape Town. My role allows me to engage in action research and contribute meaningfully to work of critical importance to South Africa. The transition from academia to the NGO sector was a leap those who knew me during my postgraduate studies anticipated. Being able to see the tangible impact of work in this sector and question traditional research methods makes my heart content.

What is your research focus on/what is your area of expertise?

In general, my research focuses on perspectives on urban law and governance, local government, and their intersection with environmental, climate change, energy and water law.

Specifically, in my thesis, City-level Law and Governance of Water Security in South Africa, I critically assess South African law and governance and how it addresses the interface between water security and urban governance. In my framing and conceptualisation of urban water security I look at access to water and sanitation services, the protection of urban aquatic ecosystems (both freshwater and coastal), urban flood and drought risk management (including an assessment of climate risks), as well as ensuring water as a socio-economic good (sustainability).

My research assesses international, African regional, and national legal frameworks, exploring how they outline a role for local governments in addressing water security. It also reviews the law and governance tools of three selected cities, determining how these cities have tackled water security in their by-laws, policies, and planning instruments. The study questions whether the measures adopted by these municipalities sufficiently address water security threats, in accordance with the outlined dimensions and legal frameworks.

My analysis of international, regional, and national legal frameworks revealed a lack of alignment across the dimensions, posing challenges to urban water security. I suggest several reforms to legal and governance frameworks, as well as improvements in water resource planning and management by cities. My study significantly highlights the potential of integrated policies and regulatory measures to enhance to optimize responses to urban water insecurity.

Why is your research/work important?

My research is important because we’re currently in an era of significant scientific advancement with the potential to improve human health and well-being. My main goal is to generate knowledge that will support and guide transformations towards sustainability. This means I want my research to not only expand our understanding but also lead to tangible, positive changes in the world.

A crucial area I focused on is the water-related problems that cities in South Africa face. These challenges are brought about by a combination of urban growth, climate change, and the interplay of various social, economic, political, technical, and governance issues. They don’t just affect city water services, but also heighten the risk of floods and droughts, and threaten aquatic ecosystems such as wetlands, estuaries and rivers.

Given these problems, it’s extremely important that cities act swiftly to develop and implement strategies to manage these water-related threats. This ensures that they can continue to function effectively and sustainably, even in the face of these challenges. Water security is a crucial aspect of this. It provides a comprehensive way to address various water-related issues. However, past research often only looked at water availability and the factors that might affect it in the future. But to truly ensure water security, we need to understand that the urban water system is interconnected. This means considering all the different uses of water, who uses it, and the threats to it.

That’s where my research comes in. I’m examining water security in cities from a legal and policy perspective, specifically in the context of South Africa. To do this, I used a mix of legal doctrines and social-legal analyses, drawing from fields like urban law, development, water law, and laws related to the environment and climate change. I hope this approach will provide a more comprehensive understanding of urban water security and lead to effective strategies to ensure it.

There is still a long way to go to truly achieve equity and a sense of belonging for women, be it within the research community or society in general. How do you envision yourself contributing to this space?

Just like me, many students who are entering higher education, including postgraduate programs, are the first in their families to do so, coming from backgrounds that have historically faced numerous challenges. Many of these students are unsure if they can overcome their circumstances. Despite my own hurdles, I firmly believe in the potential of these young people to better themselves and uplift their communities. I think it’s important for them to see people like me in typically white-dominated spaces. This visibility and representation can help instil a belief in them that if I managed, so can they (of course with the right platforms, guidance and support).

I want to focus my research and activism on revealing and resolving gender inequality and environmental injustices. As people of colour, we do not have an individualistic nature, but society has in some way forced us into leaving behind our uniqueness that lies in our communal spirit, or what we know as Ubuntu. My goal is to encourage that communal spirit that enhances resilience, encourages gender equality, and strives for better conditions, by utilising every platform to champion inclusiveness and accessibility to opportunities.

My academic journey has defined my teaching principles, research interests, and devotion to helping students achieve academic success. Through my own experience, I realise the considerable hurdles that many of our students face, especially those entering higher education for the first time, as well as the substantial emotional toll that this can bring at the personal, family, and societal levels. Through my research and advocacy, I also want to be part of the change in this area where mental health issues can be discussed openly, and efforts can be made to promote mental health in this environment without stigma.

What advice do you have for girls who are interested in STEM-related careers?

I’d love to share some advice for any girls (and people in general) interested in pursuing a career in STEM:

  • Find what drives you: Use your interests, your love for solving problems, or your ambition to make the world a better place as your motivation.
  • Find a mentor: I cannot stress this enough; it’s so important to have a mentor who understands and supports you in your career journey. The guidance, motivation, and resources they can offer are priceless, especially if you’re from a background where you might not have access to these things. Remember, we grow by supporting each other.
  • Do not be afraid of failure or uncertainty: It’s okay not to know everything. There will be many uncertainties along your journey and the path itself will change in various ways, open yourself up to the idea that you are not failing, merely learning in new ways.
  • Be assertive: Confront stereotypes, bias, or discrimination. Do not, and I repeat, do not ascribe to the phenomenon of “imposter syndrome”. You do not have to fight for a spot at the table, and you do not need to diminish who you are to fit into certain spaces. Your contributions are valuable, you have the right to pursue your dreams, and deserve to own the space you are in.
  • Seize learning opportunities: Look for internships, workshops, conferences, or online courses. These can help build your skills and expand your network.
  • Look after yourself: The academic world can be high-pressure, so don’t forget to engage in activities that help you relax and refresh. Your mental and physical health should always come first.

What do I wish I had known earlier? It can be lonely and uncomfortable to be in a field where there aren’t many people who look like you or share your experiences. But remember, your unique perspective is a strength. Success isn’t just about grades or job titles; it’s also about the difference you make and the satisfaction you get from your work.

This work is licenced under an Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 South Africa (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0 ZA) license. Please view the terms for republishing here.

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