CAPE TOWN, SOUTH AFRICA: Every story needs a hero. And when you’re working in non-fiction, it has to be a real hero. But for a group of Cape Town storytellers, they’re almost spoiled for choice amongst a group of dynamic water activists in a ‘township’ on the outskirts of the Mother City. Here’s how they muddled through this classic writer’s dilemma.

They call it the umfudo, the ‘tortoise’, because it hides inside its shell: the blue, flat-topped water management device, sunk into the ground outside many homes in low income communities in Cape Town. Every day, it measures out the family’s municipally-allocated 350 litres of free daily water.

The City of Cape Town sees it as a legitimate way to manage water delivery to poor homes.

But for the women activists of Makhaza, in Khayelitsha outside Cape Town, they see the devise as punitive and unjust, a heavy-handed debt recovery strategy imposed on them by the municipality. Because once the meter has delivered its daily water, it shuts off the supply, leaving families without water for the remaining 24 hour period. Thereafter they have to collect it in buckets from neighbours or nearby community taps. 

The fraught relationship between the Makhaza women and the umfudo was central to Leaks, Debts and Devices, a video made recently by Untold Stories partner EMG (the Environmental Monitoring Group), a Cape Town-based non-governmental organisation concerned with the social justice aspect of water delivery in the city.

And in the storytelling process, EMG filmmakers zoomed in on Nokuzola Bulana, a woman whose story became the central narrative for the film.

But after years of working in under-resourced communities like this, where activism is often done by generous volunteers, the EMG team is acutely aware of how singling out one person in this way can disrupt group dynamics and lower morale for others.

Now, as EMG plots out a series of case studies to feature in its Untold Stories series, this same community will come under the spotlight. The story aims to capture how these women have tackled the City of Cape Town on what they perceive as unjust water service delivery, how they have driven the clean-up of a polluted wetland, and have helped reclaim a gangster infested park for the community.

However, since the video was made, the group of women has evolved – new leaders have emerged, older leaders have stepped back into more specialist roles, longer standing members are still active, new members have joined their ranks.

Singling out one person to be the central character seemed inappropriate. And focusing on, say, ten people for a moving photographic essay also seemed unfair – this would mean choosing some to be photographed, while ignoring others in such a dynamic group.

So how, then, do they meet the unflinching demands of such a classic narrative device: finding the hero?

And so, the team took a step back, and looked at the landscape. Because, right before them, was one quiet but ever-present character that ran across all the lives of the women working here, throughout all the issues, across the entire landscape: the river that meanders along the edge of Makhaza, feeding through the park and into the wetland. This trickle of water is the thread that holds the community, the activists and their issues together in one united story.

The river will be the central character.

The EMG team heads out into the field in mid-July, along with a specialist narrative writer, a photographer and a sound recording expert, to gather the information for what will become the first in EMG’s series of Untold Stories. Watch this space!

EMG has teamed up with Dutch NGO Both ENDS to produce the Untold Stories series, a collection of stories that capture the spirit of the work these sustainability-oriented organisations are involved with, and their community partnerships.