Maverick Citizen


Healing waters – a Centurion eco warrior’s journey from abuse to a mission to clean rivers

Healing waters – a Centurion eco warrior’s journey from abuse to a mission to clean rivers
Tarryn Johnston at one of the clean-up sites on the Hennops River (Photo: Thom Pierce, The Actionists)

The Actionist’s journey to end the abusive relationships that had shaped her life led her to a place of healing through realising her responsibility towards the environment.

The way that other people talk about Tarryn Johnston is a better indication than any other of her passion for cleaning up the Hennops River. Their faces crease into a smile and they say something like: “That woman is incredible.”

It is Johnston’s focused intention about her mission to clean up the waterways, and the generosity with which she encourages others along on that journey, that bring people to this conclusion.

“We don’t have time to sit around and point fingers… I clean rivers. It’s a popular misconception that it is someone else’s job.”

In 2018, Johnston’s life was in a very different place. She was on a mission to end the abusive relationships that had shaped her life, embarking on an introspective journey through prayer and meditation. During one of the workshops she attended, the facilitator identified that she owed a debt to the ocean and this started her on the journey to the realisation of her responsibility towards the environment, specifically water.

In 2019, her 12-year-old daughter asked her if she could help with a river clean-up project and she jumped at the chance. Johnston had no idea that this was just the beginning of her healing.

On seeing the black, sludgy water, she was horrified by the dangerous levels of pollution in the rivers near her home in Centurion, Gauteng. She committed to organising a river clean-up every two weeks and, once she realised that she needed money to do so, she started a not-for-profit company.

Over the next few years, extreme weather and Covid-19 distracted from the river clean-up operation, and Johnston busied herself with emergency flood responses and the sheltering of homeless people during the pandemic.

Read more in Daily Maverick: When falling rocks crush human rights – Marikana’s Christinah Mdau leads fight for life free of mine blasting

But the Hennops River Revival has continued to grow, and through Johnston’s positive determination she now has funding and a team of 12 people that cleans up the river three days a week.

It’s her ability to bring people together that is so enviable. She has a good relationship with the local government, something that she says comes from not pointing fingers of blame but from offering partnerships and solutions.

Read more in Daily Maverick: Fighting the filth – meet the people leading the charge against river pollution in South Africa

She also has several big corporates that fund small projects through their social investment initiatives, which means that she is single-handedly doing the work of several corporate departments.

There is also the acknowledgement that this job will never end and that she will never clean up the Hennops in her lifetime. But that’s all part of being an Actionist for Johnston – taking on the work for the benefit of future generations. DM

It’s Women’s Month in South Africa and so, throughout August, The Actionists will exclusively be featuring stories of inspiring women who are working to make a positive change in the world around them.

The Actionists was launched in early 2023 by photographer Thom Pierce. It consists of on-the-ground problem solvers, community activists, climate campaigners and human rights defenders who engage in direct action. They are people anyone can turn to in difficult circumstances: a growing community of people who care about the future of South Africa. Through a series of photographic stories, Pierce profiles these people. Through a website, discussion forum and social media, the aim is to provide ways for people to get involved.

Nominate Actionists in your circle at or email [email protected]


Comments - Please in order to comment.

  • Andries Herholdt says:

    “Their faces crease into a smile and they say something like: “That woman is incredible.”” – the people saying this are not wrong. She is amazing. She gets people like me to stop being couch citizens and actually so something.

  • Bee Man says:

    Tarryn you’re amazing and have my undying respect. However, the last paragraph says it all, and unfortunately this scourge of sbsolute filth flowing through our neighborhoods and parkland will never be erradicated until the root causes are addressed. Its my understanding that the filth emanates from OR Tambo district municipality and Tshwane municipality should take them to court to resolve this matter.
    Failing that, maybe a class action from residents of Centurion??

  • Hermann Funk says:

    Another example of what is possible. Just imagine that this would happen in all spheres of our society; SA would be a different country.

  • This is my best friends mom and I’m actually genuinely happy to know her and what her aims are for The Hennops River

Please peer review 3 community comments before your comment can be posted


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