Are people really aware of the danger we are facing?

This blog has been taken from a monthly report on the Changing Practice course which has just started in the Olifants catchment. The first ‘working together’ session was held in Emalahleni – yes, that town that you pass through on the way to the Kruger National Park. It seems like a pretty insignificant town sitting, in what has been entitled by some over zealous marketing department, as the ‘cultural heartland’ of South Africa. If you look more closely you will notice that situated around Emalahleni are mountains of coal, coal mines and the large Eskom power plants. It is known as the Witbank coal fields and it is this area that feeds electricity to South Africa. So as you sit in Johannesburg, sipping on a craft beer on this gentle Friday afternoon maybe spend a few moments thinking of what makes all of Johannesburg possible and who is paying the price.

One of the people paying the price gave this blog it’s title, ‘Are people really aware of the danger we are facing?” She is one of the participants on the Changing Practice course and works for a community based organisation that is trying to hold mining companies responsible for the mess they leave behind them and the communities they devastate. She, along with one of her comrades took the Changing Practice participants on a ‘toxic tour’ of the Emalahleni where we witnessed informal communities, that were supposed to be relocated years ago, existing on top of old mines. Every now and again a shack will disappear into the earth. We witnessed a mountain high pile of coal dust, around which another community lives. We climbed to the top of this vicarious pile of coal, picking our way carefully through the shifting surface. Around us women and young children, some no older than 3 years old sifted the coal dust looking for big enough pieces to take home with them to cook food and heat their shacks. Our guide, with a deep sadness on his face, told us how the people that try and find coal on this illegal heap of coal sometimes find the earth breaking away under them, they sink and drown in the coal dust. We then drove down a road between a big smelter and heard how the smelter dumps it’s waste on the road between the smelter and the township that exists under its shadow. During the rainy season all of this waste washes down into the tributaries of the Olifants river. An old lady bent double on the road searches for bits of metal amongst the waste in the hope of being able to sell it. Another visit past another huge, abandoned coal waste dump. We all sat looking at the stream of acid mine drainage meandering down the hill to the communities and river below. Our guide again took us past the coal dust mountain to a enlarged hole in the ground. As we came closer we started coughing, our eyes watered. Some stopped walking bent over coughing as the fumes became stronger. There were no gates, no boundaries to keep people safe from these massive holes in the ground out of which fumes belched. Some of these caverns were still on fire sending sleepy flames above ground. At the end of this tour all of us had sore throats, streaming eyes and headaches. We had only spent a few hours in the communities that live on the edges of this ‘Mordor’ and yet many people are abandoned to live their lives in this wasteland. Is it worth it, the sacrifice of so many lives, so many children? I can’t believe it is. I can’t believe that the majority of us would believe that anything is worth this. There was an anger in me that I still can’t find words for after this visit, an anger that does not burn but is heavy, immovable and drenched in coal dust.

Below are further reflections on what we experienced during our time together as we explored what it means to Change Practice.


The theme of the first module is ‘investigating context and practice’. The workshop introduces community organisations to what this means at a personal, relational and structural level. This is done by weaving between personal experience to local contextual experience to what this means more broadly for the work of an activist within the current national and global context. There is also a strong focus on what practice and context means materially – as in how does it manifest in relation to the environment and the real outcomes context and practice have on human and non-humans.

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 share how the course has been designed as a transformative learning process within an emancipatory pedagogy. We also explore together what it means to learn and our own personal experiences of learning – both positive and negative. These experiences are then related to the kind of learning the Changing Practice course wishes to initiate. 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. This is equally so with how we consider our relationship with the environment. The view of nature as something to dominate can be reinforced or challenged through an educational process.

From the previous course we realised that participants have often experienced varied degrees of trauma because of the nature of South African society or 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 centring. We were hoping to do this through a healing process known as ‘working with the elements’ but unfortunately Jessica Wilson, who is trained to run this process, was unable to attend the course due to an illness. Instead we introduced what is 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. We introduced it as an opportunity to become aware of our inner environment. By noticing our inner environment we begin to see our reactions and responses to our outer environment and each other. On the second day we started off with this practice. Participants were unusually receptive to the practice and found it hugely beneficial.

The rest of the second day was spent exploring context and practice by starting with participants sharing their pre-course assignments which introduced their ‘Change Projects’ to the group. This was followed by an introduction to context and practice and a dialogue about what these concepts mean if we consider our own work contexts. This included some exercises of practicing exploring context and practice. An additional session was added to the day because during the pre-course assignment presentations participants started to see links between their Change Project and others in the group. The after hours session explored these connections and also gave the group more time to give each other advice and contact that may be useful to them.

The morning of Day 2 was a field trip which CULISA and Action Voices organised. It was an opportunity to again practice observing and questioning context and practice. The field trip was called the ‘toxic tour’ and 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 the a concern of everyone in the Olifants. We ran a healing relaxation session after the tour as many of us felt overwhelmed by what we had witnessed.

We then moved into a brief dialogue on climate change where participants were asked to consider how they contribute to climate change and how climate change affects them. The intention of this was to both situate climate change within our own lives as well as get a sense of the groups perceptions of climate change – what they understood and what was confusing for them. Most of the group understood the basic facts about climate change. There was  a discussion about what climate change meant in the context of African spiritual beliefs. What was most apparent was a deep sense of disempowerment around climate change, not so much in terms of knowledge but a feeling of not knowing what was happening, what negotiations were being held and how ordinary people and civil society is involved in these negotiations and decisions. Listening to the dialogue there was a sense, from the group, that there are organisations and governments are making decisions which are not communicated to civil society nor do the participants know what platforms exist (if any) for them to participate in. It is the power dynamics of climate change and questions about who makes the decisions and negotiates on behalf of South African citizens that concerns participants.

After the climate change dialogues we ran a gender dialogues using the Freirian fish bowl approach. The question posed to the fish bowl 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. Some strong patriarchal narratives also emerged which were deeply upsetting to some of the members of the group. The dialogues were very challenging for all of us including myself.  It surfaced the perceptions of the group around gender roles and stereotypes, how these manifest on social structure and touched on some deep experiences that the women held of being both dominated and excluded because they are women. Dialogues also started emerging around how women are the most vulnerable when it comes to environmental degradation and climate change although most of these conversations were started by men and in an objectified way whereas the women in the group wanted to keep the conversation at the raw edge of what it meant for women, and particularly the women in this room, to be discriminated against particularly when it came to their desire to be change agents in the world and to participate in, and lead, movements. 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’. When doing image work there it is very difficult not to be direct and mostly honest. Words can be curated across timeframes (we can use words to distance, other and objectify) whereas the body can only express exactly what is happening right in the moment. We can also, as participants, hear the body more clearly than when we listen to words which we are already forming counter arguments or agreements to. Listening to images forces our speech to be silent and for us to listen to the gestures that are performed in the space in front of us.

The final day started with a check in session where we touched base on how we all felt after the very intense gender session and field trip of the previous day. What was apparent and surprising is that the group had formed a very strong bond by going through a very honest and challenging experience together. The interactions were grounded and real. We ended our check in by getting an object from the external environment that represented our vulnerabilities as change agents and how the group can, in solidarity, respect and be gentle with these vulnerabilities.


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