Community activists as catalysts for change

By December Ndhlovu

In the last 10 years, the Water Research Commission (WRC) presented an opportunity to community-based environmental activists to conduct research on issues that are of concern to them through a project that is known as the “Social Learning or Change Project”. This is an 18 months short course offered through Rhodes University’s Environmental Learning Research Centre and was designed and developed by Dr Jane Caroline Burt.

Social Learning is community based action research that seeks to empower ordinary community activists to be able to effect change by working together with their communities towards achieving a change to improve adverse environmental conditions.  When issues of environmental concern are raised by the same local people that are also affected by such actions, it is mostly well received by the masses because they have more trust in their leaders than in outsiders. The Social Learning process presents the chance to the participants to engage and learn from the elders of these communities because they consult with those that have witnessed a different state of the environment before it was destroyed by industrial activities which are always disguised as development. But in reality we find that what is called development is actually a destruction of the environment.

The history of Social learning

Since the introduction of the Changing Practice course in the Eastern Cape Province, it has now grown to other provinces and has the potential to grow even bigger, judging by the impacts it has had so far.  The first group, although I don’t know much about it myself, was obviously the foundation of what the project has become to be today and was attended by small scale farmers from the Eastern Cape. It was successful since there have been two similar successful projects since then.

The second course started in 2015 and I was one of the lucky participants of this course. This course was attended by members from provincial member-organizations that comprise the South African Water Caucus (SAWC). Their research focus varied according to challenges in these provinces, being the Eastern Cape Water Caucus (ECWC) – their organization is Zingisa and their research focused was on water for food; the Western Cape Water Caucus (WCWC) which focused on the adverse effects of the water management devices in Dunoon; the Gauteng Water Caucus who focused  on  water pollution and spiritual water users. The other participants were from Mpumalanga Water Caucus and their focus was on the impacts of large scale industrial timber plantations (ITP’s) on ecosystem services and land redistribution.

The most recent social learning group was from the Olifants catchment and their focus was on environmental injustices that they are experiencing in their different regions. In this group there were participants from the upper Olifants catchment, which is Witbank and Middelburg, the Middle Olifants which is the Burgersfort and Steelport area. There were also two participants from the Lowveld region.

The 2015 Changing Practice group

The good thing so far is that some of the activists continue with this work beyond graduation, like WCWC continued to engage the municipality about the water management devices that literally cut off water supply of the house if one exits the free basic water. In Gauteng the Vaal Environmental Justice Alliance (VEJA) is still pursuing the metal industries to clean the rivers around the Sebokeng area that are heavily polluted by these industries. In Mpumalanga the struggles continue, of engaging with the government over the decision to strategically clear some plantations in the Mariepskop mountain range. Most if not all are pretty much still continuing with their Changing Practice activities. In the upper Olifants the engagement around air quality is continuing. The middle Olifants is actively engaged with the mines, municipality and community members.

The recent group, the Olifants Changing Practice Project

So I think the social learning/Changing pPactice, Asset Based Community-led Development (ABCD) and the Ecovillage Design Education (EDE) are by far the best form of development globally. The social learning project has done a very good job by empowering and enhancing the knowledge and skills of local community activists that are protecting their environment.

The Olifants Changing Practice Project graduation day






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