Maverick Citizen


Voice of the People: The activists striving to make a difference at community level

Voice of the People: The activists striving to make a difference at community level
Sinegugu Zukulu (left), a Transkei community development, social and environmental activist in a panel discussion on 25 March 2023 at Constitution Hill, Johannesburg, with Tarryn Johnston, a founder of Hennops Revival, a nonprofit company focused on reviving, restoring and healing the Hennops River. (Photo: Meseret Argaw)

Across South Africa, there is a growing movement of community activists stepping up in neighbourhoods to enhance the rights of communities.

Driven by a vision for a cleaner, healthier environment and reclaiming common humanity in communities, many leaders are making a difference now and for future generations in rural and urban areas.

Some of these leaders are: 

Sinegugu Zukulu

Sinegugu Zukulu, a community development, social and environmental activist, in a panel discussion titled ‘Listening and Learning from Community Voices: Amplifying the Collective Need for a Sustainable Future’ on 25 March 2023 at Constitution Hill, Johannesburg. (Photo: Meseret Argaw)

Born in the Amadiba administrative area of eastern Mpondoland on the Wild Coast, Sinegugu Zukulu is a dynamic, inspiring and deeply committed community development, social and environmental activist.

Zukulu is an advocate for bottom-up sustainable development that protects the integrity of local communities and local ecosystems. He is the programme director for Sustaining the Wild Coast (SWC), an organisation committed to listening to, building relationships with, and amplifying the voice of the Amadiba people who are determined to protect their land from destruction.

Zukulu said most of the work they do was not confined to specific definitions.

“We do what needs to be done on the ground. It’s all about helping sustain the environment of the people of Amadiba, the land and the food systems. It’s complicated, but we fight to enhance the rights of our people… we had to pick up on the Xolobeni case to help amplify their right to be heard in their multifaceted struggles.

“The challenge we have is that when you open your mouth and you claim a particular right, do people hear you? More often in the rural landscape… we are not heard. The government does not hear us… does not see us. Instead of acknowledging our voices and struggles, we often get a backlash that we are being driven by white people.”

Tarryn Johnston

“It all started with my then 12-year-old daughter asking for help in organising a river clean-up in September 2019. I saw that the river water was black and dirty, I knew something needed to be done and there was no time…  if not now, then when? My main tools were my hands and my voice.”

So says Tarryn Johnston, founder of  Hennops Revival, on her journey to restore the health of the Hennops River, the most polluted river in Gauteng. 

Hennops Revival is a non-profit organisation aimed at reviving and restoring the river, in collaboration with the government, other organisations, the private sector and members of the public.

Johnston says the initiative has become an extension of her love for water and activism around water. While it started as the clean-up of one river, it has expanded to bigger clean-ups. Johnston is the global chairperson of the Moving Water Alliance, which performs river and beach clean-ups.

Unlike Zukulu, Johnston’s initiative of cleaning up the Hennops River has received much attention and support from the government and individuals, which begs the question: Why does the government not hear other local communities? Is it a deafness of convenience?

‘Father Christmas’

According to Zukulu, “The challenge we have is a political system that lets people lead for a minimum period of five years and they ought to deliver in the same system Father Christmas does. Father Christmas doesn’t ask you what you want, they just deliver what they think you deserve and you are supposed to celebrate whatever is delivered at your door. And when you wake up in the morning, you don’t question, because Father Christmas is gone.

“The government system works like that and unfortunately, in the process of delivering, as Patrice Lumumba says, ‘Those who have power have no idea and those who have ideas have no power’. ” 

Zukula and Johnston agreed that it is important for activists to work together towards common goals. 

“We should not sit and be relying on the government to help us sustain a future for our communities. We, as a collective of activists, should be forming coalitions to work together, because one way or the other we are connected through the rivers,” said Johnston. 

From enemies to allies

Nigel Branken (right), a social worker, pastor, and activist and Prophet JD (left), former chairperson of Dudula Orange Grove, share their experiences in a panel discussion on 25 March 2023 in Constitution Hill, Johannesburg, titled From Enemies to Allies: Overcoming Xenophobia Through Dialogue and Action. (Photo: Meseret Argaw)

At the height of the Operation Dudula movement gaining momentum in Orange Grove last year, social activist Nigel Branken and the former chairperson of Operation Dudula Orange Grove branch, Prophet JD, found themselves at loggerheads because of their different perspectives on immigrants and issues faced by their community.

Branken said their relationship was sour to the point where the police had to intervene. However, he said, after various facilitated engagements their relationship has transformed from one of threats and hostility to collaboration and mutual respect.

Branken said they had resolved to work together on common goals relating to overcoming hate, promoting community unity, fighting against xenophobia and genuinely seeking to address community concerns.

“As we started engaging, we set up the Orange Grove Residents Association and started talking a lot about our common interests. What we found as our common interests relate to issues of unemployment and developing the economy of Orange Grove.”

Prophet JD said that to solve the issue of a contested space, they have had to listen to each other.

“We are not agreeing with each other on everything, but we are talking…  and trying to find ways of keeping this dialogue going. Because the more we keep the dialogue with people we disagree with, the more we can get the protection of people important to us in our communities.” DM/MC


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