Let’s fix SA by getting our hands dirty and doing something that actively makes a difference

Let’s fix SA by getting our hands dirty and doing something that actively makes a difference
Photographer Thom Pierce.has launched The Actionists, a movement that consists of activists who don't just talk but take direct action to fix societal problems. (Photo: Supplied)

The Actionists is a call to action to everyone in South Africa. It is a challenge to look outwardly, get involved and change the lives of people around you.

For many years, I wanted to create a continuing photographic project that tells short, accessible stories about the people across South Africa who are working to make a difference in their communities. I truly believed it was needed – and five years later it has been launched.

The Actionists is not just a series of inspiring stories any more: it is a call to action to everyone in the country. It is a challenge to look outwardly, get involved and change the lives of people around you.

The Actionists is a journey and we want you to come on that journey with us.

In 2018 I made a photographic series for The Guardian, in partnership with the NGO Global Witness and the UN Environment Programme. It was called The Defenders and it documented the risks that environmental activists face in different countries around the world.

I wanted to make a version of that project here in South Africa and so, imaginatively, I called it the Defenders: South Africa.

Starting from scratch

The problem with the name was that it didn’t really speak about the people I wanted to find. I needed it to convey a feeling of forward movement, innovation and positive action rather than static defiance. So I came up with the Actionists.

“Actionist” is not a well-established word. It is listed in only one dictionary I’ve found and, as far as I can tell from a brief Google search, has no real usage. Neither does “actionism”, the term I’ve decided to use to describe the work of Actionists.

The nice thing about words without much usage is that you get to decide what they mean. You get to build something new, outside the constraints of definition. You get to start from scratch.

And start from scratch I did. This entire project has been self-funded until now, on a very tight budget. I’ve photographed and interviewed more than 70 people, built three websites and designed countless logos and newsletters, as well as social media content. My biggest expense has been my time.

The project itself has developed through several different iterations, complete with branding and social media, which were all then scrapped when they didn’t quite manifest the vision that I had for The Actionists.

They say that making a sculpture is about chipping away the parts that aren’t the sculpture, and it feels like this project has taken five years to do just that.

Throughout the development period, the one thing leading me was the “why”. Why am I making this? Why am I willing to put all my time, money and energy into this? Why is it needed? Why would anyone else care?

I am making this project because I need it. I need a more positive view of South Africa. I need to know there are people in the country who are working hard to make it a better, safer and more inclusive place for everyone.

I need to know that other people care. I need my kids to know there is hope.

And if I need it, I am pretty sure there are other people who need it too.

And so I’ve met the most incredible people. Every day I get to speak with Actionists who are working to make a difference in the world around them. They are inspiring, uplifting and motivating people who are dedicated to the idea of change.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Sesi Mahlangu likes to see children walking tall – and it starts with a pair of shoes

Stories of hope

There is a story of hope to be found in every suburb: from the night security guard who sleeps one hour a night so that he can run a feeding programme during the day to the young club promoter who needed a new pair of sneakers and inadvertently started a shoe donation programme for an orphanage.

As the water warrior Tarryn Johnston told me: “We don’t have time to sit around and point fingers. I clean rivers.

“It’s a popular misconception that it’s someone else’s job.”

Together with Daily Maverick, we will be publishing a continuing series of stories that profile people in South Africa who are working to make a positive change.

The stories are intended to inspire and uplift, and with many of them we will provide a tangible way to get involved.

We invite you to be part of that community: to engage, comment, start discussions and nominate people whose stories deserve to be told, and to collaborate in whatever way you can. We want to start a movement. DM

Thom Pierce is a British photographer, currently based in Johannesburg, South Africa. His work explores the line between documentary, art and portrait photography to engage with humanitarian issues through photographic essays, installations and exhibitions. He has won several awards for his work and has previously been chosen as a finalist in the Magnum Photography Awards and selected for the Taylor Wessing Photographic Portrait Prize Exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery in London. See more The Actionists profiles here.

This story first appeared in our weekly Daily Maverick 168 newspaper, which is available countrywide for R29.

DM168 1 July 2023

DM168 1 July 2023


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Liz Page says:

    An organisation on the KZN South Coast called “Tidy Towns Shelly to Margate” has revitalised part of the Lower South Coast. Do read Groundup’s Benita Enoch’s article on 30th September 2022 – “South Coast Businesses join forces….” The Tidy Towns initiative has cleaned up the beaches, repaired the beach infrared and go from strength to strength bringing business & pride back to this Cinderella corner of KZN.

  • Stephanie Brown says:

    What a great call to action and love the name. It is one of the things that South Africa needs right now – hope and knowledge that there are people working to make it better.

  • Hermann Funk says:

    Thom, thanks for this initiative. What I like especially about your idea is the building of a movement. We have some very effective NGOs in this country and it is due our civic organisations in general that this country has not gone down the drain completely. However, the challenges SA faces are that huge that cooperation of NGOs and others is needed if we want to hand over a decent country to our children. It is critical that we look at opportunities from various perspectives which the present structure is limiting. Synergy and exponential growth (badly needed) is only possible through working together and complementing each others’ activities.

  • James Harrison says:

    A commendable initiative!

  • Nic Tsangarakis says:

    Thank you Thom for what you do for our beautiful country.

  • Miles Japhet says:

    Thom Pierce can contact me to get info on Wendy Malpage who organises and gets funding for a Team cleaning sections of the Jukskei and Braamfontein Spruit. I assume like River Warriors do.

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