Blog: Changing Practice in the Olifants

SEJN is based in Burgersfort, Greater Tubatse Municipality, Limpopo, in the middle Olifants catchment. They have been organising under the name SEJN for 6 months, but their members have been active community monitors associated with Benchmark Foundation for 5 years, as part of a network of Southern African communities living near mines.

FullSizeRender 1Change Project: Water pollution in the Motse River, by Eustine Matsepane, Mmathapelo Thobejane and Tokelo Mahlakwana

Description: For their changing practice project, SEJN are investigating the sources and impacts of mining pollution in the rivers close to where they live - in particular, the impact on livestock, who frequently die after drinking from the mine streams. They have spoken to herders, farmers and elders in their communities, and have recently started working with a student from the University of Venda to help them take water samples and tissue samples from the dead cattle. They have also lobbied Department of Water and Sanitation to come and take water samples and report back to them on the state of the water in the streams and boreholes, and are doing an excellent job of holding DWS to account. 

Below are some excerpts from the changing practice Whatsapp group

Mmathapelo (26 June):

Good morning comrades, I received a call this morning from Limpopo Dept of Water and Sanitation. We made an appointment and they will do water testing next week... SEJN and other organisations around our area are welcome to come and witness the process, we will also have a team of livestock owners. Patience pays at last. 

Tokelo (5 July):

Today we were meeting with this guy from DWS. The purpose of the meeting was to make relationships between DWS, the communities, ward committees, ward counselors, water committees, CDWs ( Community Development Workers) and SDM( Sekhukhune District Municipality). The communities were reporting on how they suffer to get water especially from bore holes, and dams that are made by the municipality. This is when I started to see that our DWS don't do their jobs because they don't know where the problems are. We started to ask him whether he remembers the time they tested the bore holes and dams, and this showed him that we do know that the water we drink is very contaminated. The meeting was great because they said they will come back after two weeks with responsible people.

Mmathapelo (18 August):IMG 4250

Today the [University of Venda] student and SEJN members started the day by collecting water samples from the upper catchment of the Motse river next to Lolo mountain (Mmatadi) where we collected fresh water. We proceeded to a mine stream, where Motse River meets with the mine stream and the Olifants River. We are hoping to get the results by the end of the month.💪💪💪.......... 

You can read more about SEJN's fantastic work on their community monitors blog. 

One of the intentions of this blog is to profile the work of the organisations and participants taking part in the Olifants Catchment Changing Practice course. This week, we will focus on Action Voices, from Emalahleni in the Upper Olifants catchment. 

Change Project: 'Being a voice for the Bragspruit wetland' by Susan Boledi, Lorraine Kakaza & Colen Jojobe. 


Description: Action Voices have been involved, for a long time, in monitoring the streams and wetlands around the sewerage in canalEmalahleni communities as Benchmark environmental monitors. They have chosen the Bragspruit wetland as the area they would like to work on, in more depth, for their Change Project. The wetland is situated near the KG Mall, near the N4, between Vosman location Extension 3 & 5 and the Emsagweni location. When speaking to them about their Change Project they report how ‘it is hopeless’. People have given up that anything will change and are no longer interested in engaging.  The wetland is much worse than it was. In their pre-course assignment they report on how the wetland is filled with animal skulls, dead animals, sewerage and waste that is thrown away, in the informal community, is washed into the wetland. Spiritual practitioners used to practice here but they don’t do so anymore. People that live next to the wetland and have small gardens complain that when they use the water from the wetland their crops die. As it is an informal settlement houses are often flooded in the Summer months when the rain comes and gardens are flooded and die. Community members report that when the rains come the water smells. The communities often don’t have any tap water and so they are forced to use water from the wetland. Action Voices thinks that the water is contaminated by the abandoned mine in the area which affects the communities living near it. 


Whatsapp updates: Throughout the month of June, the changing practice course participants have been sharing updates on their work via Whatsapp. The following are excerpts from Action Voices' whatsapp reports:

"Today I was going to town when I was about to approach Standard Bank I smelt a bad smell, it was a terrible smell. I was wondering what could it be. Guess what, it was a sewer. I couldn’t believe what I saw with my eyes. I went straight to the municipality and reported it. They told me that they are going to attend it tomorrow. I’m not happy at all because next to it there are shops that sell food and potato chips. Customers are no longer buying. They ran away and again there are no signs of danger and I’m 100% sure that when children are passing there they will be in danger. I have reported many unattended sewer but none of them are being fixed. Two weeks ago there was someone who lost their life in a sewer."
Communities living next to the mines suffer for the rest of their lives. It’s was so painful to hear people complaining about the mines that operate next to them. All these mines are open cast. They just operate without the community concerns. Instead they create more problems like teenage pregnancy, drugs and unemployment. They don’t hire local people and this affects the youth. So this creates division. One woman says “we had a challenge of water. We don’t have water but when you pass the mine you will see at the washing plant they do have water. We breath black air from the coal dust everyday. We don’t have water and sanitation but mines got everything on their side".On the 8th June I was at Grooivlei farm doing the survey. The more I get to a household I felt like crying. It’s really difficult to see people living in bad situation at the same time they are surrounded by mines ..the community they are always happy to see me because they share their stories with me".

Module 2 coming up: Next week, all the participants and course facilitators will be gathering in Burgersfort for Module 2, where we will be sharing progress, delving deeper into our histories to understand how we got to this point, and how we know what we know. It will also be an opportunity to offer support and solidarity to one another, and to 'refuel' with new inspiration and energy. 


This post includes excerpts from Jane Burt's June project report - read the full report here

In late May 2017 the first module of the Olifants Catchment ‘Changing Practice’ course was held in Witbank. The theme of the first module was Investigating context and practice

As with all the previous Changing practice courses, the learning approach and pedagogy is transparent and the course begins with a dialogue about learning, knowledge and education. We shared how the course has been designed as a transformative and even transgressive learning process within an emancipatory pedagogy. Some of the learning experiences that participants shared were painful and demeaning and the conversation soon progressed to considering how learning is not a neutral process but can be designed to be emancipatory or to perpetuate power imbalances and inequality.  If you are interested in learning more about transgressive learning, head over to the T-learning network website here.

From the previous course we realised that participants have often experienced trauma because of the nature of South African society, or specifically in their work as activists. For this course we wanted to consciously acknowledge this and introduce simple processes that could be healing and are, at least, relaxing and centering. We introduced what are known as healing relaxation exercises where participants are encouraged to centre themselves in their bodies and learn to bring themselves back to the present moment. These exercises were very helpful ways to start each day, and to centre ourselves after particularly challenging sessions. The participants were wonderfully open to these exercises, and shared that they found them hugely beneficial.



One such challenging session was a fieldtrip which CULISA and Action Voices organised, called the ‘toxic tour’. This was a shocking experience for all involved. Although extremely difficult to witness, everyone expressed how important it was to have experienced it as it showed them the top of the catchment and the horror of what happens here which should be of deep concern to everyone in the Olifants catchment. We ran a healing relaxation session after the tour as many of us felt overwhelmed by what we had witnessed.

 toxic tour2

The toxic tour

We also ran a gender dialogue, where the question posed was: how does gender impact on your change project? The participants quickly went to the core of how gender inequalities were experienced in their own lives and in their communities as well as how culture and religion exacerbate gender inequalities. The implicit violence that sits within the relations between men and women emerged through the dialogues, leaving us all shaken.  To move the dialogues out of speech and into our bodies we ended off the session by each one of us making an image of how we felt right now. These images were powerful, painful and challenging, which some people expressed as being ‘louder than words’.

Course coordinator and lead facilitator Jane Burt shared these reflections following Module One:

Running this course is a privilege, a painful and joyful privilege because to fully engage in and immerse oneself in a pedagogy for the oppressed means owning up to the oppressor and oppressed internally and externally. This does not only mean the individual oppressor and oppressed but the way in which inequity and injustice is structured into the institutions and organisations of which we are a part, the cultures out of which we emerge and the relationships we engage in and form. It also emerges out of the experience of the non-human and the slow violence that is being inflicted upon the earth and so ourselves. Running this course continually teaches us this and forces us to be constantly alert, to continually read the world and, more importantly, engage in the muddling through that is the journey towards social and environmental justice. One of our co-facilitators sent a thank you note after Module One, in which she shared with us how her mother had met Paulo Freire at a conference once and asked him for some advice on her work. He said he can’t give advice, he could only talk in parables, and one parable that came to mind was that as educators we have to enter the mud together and only once we are all fully covered, can a teacher stand up. 

This post is adapted from Jane Burt's monthly report - read the full version here.

Following a successful two year 'Changing Practice' course with participants from the South African Water Caucus, this year EMG's water and climate change programme, in partnership with Rhodes University's ELRC and AWARD, are running a 'Changing Practice' course with water activists from throughout the Olifants catchment, in Mpumalanga and Limpopo. 

The first module went ahead successfully from the 22nd to the 25th of May, in Emalahleni. What really makes this course exciting is that it brings together activists from throughout a single catchment - the Olifants catchment - and although all of the organisations represented focus on a diverse range of issues, they are deeply connected through the shared river they are all striving to protect. Jane Burt, the course facilitator, describes the group as 'deeply passionate, committed and doing incredible work already'. They have all already been participating in the CSO indabas hosted by AWARD - you can learn more about this initiative on the 'Our Olifants' website

The organisations represented by participants on the course are Action Voices, Come-Act, CULISA, Itumeleng Youth Project, Khulumani Support Group, Mpumalanga Water Caucus, Sekhukhune Environmental Justice Network and South African Young Water Professionals. 

In the coming weeks and months, we will be profiling the different participants and organisations, and the important work they are doing - watch this space!

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