Maverick Citizen

THE ACTIONISTS

Determined duo aims to revitalise downtrodden Bosmont and shift narrative on stigmatised community

Determined duo aims to revitalise downtrodden Bosmont and shift narrative on stigmatised community
Actionists Debbie Cockrell and Zubaydah Kirsten. (Photo: Thom Pierce)

Debbie Cockrell and Zubaydah Kirsten hail from different backgrounds, but are united by a shared commitment to community upliftment. Together, they are leading the charge in the Bosmont clean-up efforts, determined to tackle pollution and social challenges head-on.

Debbie Cockrell was raised in Bosmont but moved away after she matriculated. Nine years ago she came back to join her mother who had started an NPO, the Slovo Centre of Excellence. Prior to this, she had worked in the hospitality industry both locally and internationally for 15 years.

“Hospitality was my first love. Food, travel and people, but it got to the point where I realised that my life needed more purpose. This year I am celebrating 10 years in the NPO sector through community development in various ways. This has been really tough, not earning a market-related salary, but I did a lot of self-directed study and put my hand up to learn new skills. I now call myself a play-based learning specialist!”

It was this self-realisation and the need to do something more for her community, that led Debbie to the Bosmont cleanup group. Where, under a tree at the Bosmont Spruit, she met Zubaydah.

Zubaydah Kirsten was born in KwaZulu-Natal. One of six siblings, her eldest sister, Fatima, was born blind because the inexperienced doctor damaged her optic nerve during delivery. At five years old, Fatima had an epileptic fit for which she needed urgent medication. Her parents took her to the nearest hospital but they refused to treat her because she was not white. They went to try a different hospital but on the way, she slipped into a coma and died.

It was this horrific experience that motivated Zubaydah’s parents to push their children to get the best education possible. They wanted to provide them with the best tools to thrive in a society that was constructed against them. Undeterred by medical school setbacks due to affordability, Zubaydah has obtained, over the years, qualifications in Medical Technology, teaching in Higher Education, postgraduate qualifications in Laboratory Medicine and is currently pursuing a postgraduate degree in Occupational Health.

“That’s when I realised I should give back to people. Collaborating with colleagues at the University of Johannesburg Peets (Process, Energy & Environmental Technology Station) and Environmental faculties, I am currently looking at the informal sector to assess the risks of microbial exposure and associated infectious diseases among street reclaimers in various suburbs in Johannesburg, pre and post-training intervention studies”.

It is clear that both Debbie and Zubaydah are passionate and driven members of the community, committed to creating a positive change around them. Individually they are strong, but together they are a force to be reckoned with.

Cleanup commitment

Like so many other communities around South Africa, Bosmont has major issues with littering and pollution but, during apartheid, the area was seen as one of the more affluent coloured communities. This, they say, presents its own challenges with an ageing population.

“The community is rife with social issues ranging from unemployment and substance abuse to GBV. The sense of apathy and degradation is clear, while others do their bit to assist with local community forums including safety and security in the neighbourhood. This attitude stretches across cultural, religious and economic demographics.”

In July 2021 a small group of volunteers met with the aim of returning Bosmont to its former glory. The Spruit that runs through the area is heavily polluted from the factories upstream and during heavy rains, the culverts, which are supposed to allow water to flow under the highway, get blocked and the entire area gets flooded with heavily polluted water.

Illegal dumping is one of the biggest problems, which results in polluted waterways, poor air quality, unusable resources, damage to buildings and diminished bird life in the natural wetland area.

So, under a tree in Bosmont Spruit Debbie and Zubaydah met as part of a small but enthusiastic group of locals inspired to clean it up. Over the last few years members of the team have fallen away but Debbie and Zubaydah have continued, unabated. Through their friendship, they have found the strength to face the many tribulations of activism and have supported each other to keep going.

Whilst Zubaydah brings a scientific perspective to the operation, working together with her colleagues at the university to conduct tests and analysis of the air, soil and water; Debbie brings a vibrant enthusiasm and tireless positivity, encouraging the community, government and other stakeholders to get involved.

“We are tired of the narrative of coloured communities. We are tired of being labelled as gangsters, drug addicts and alcoholics. We need to be the change that we want to see for people to buy into the vision of shifting this narrative,” says Debbie.

The short-term plan is that they need the culverts to be cleared, but in the long term, they need to minimise illegal dumping, get industries and individuals to be accountable for their waste, and educate the community. It’s not an easy task and one that is made so much harder because of the structural hurdles and social issues.

“The body of water falls under the Department of Forestry and Water, not the city of Johannesburg. It becomes a political issue directly linked to corruption, State Capture and the mining industry. Millions have been invested over the past decades with no restoration and work being completed,” says Zubaydah.

Together they have established an NPC called Comm-Unity Green Projects, run by a team of four women in the community. Their focus is on environmental issues with a strong drive towards collaboration, education and awareness. Along with their team, which is 100% volunteer-based, they are playing an important role in the fight for environmental justice.

Debbie and Zubaydah are just two concerned citizens with a passion for change and to win this fight they need legal assistance and direction. It’s all a lot of thankless hard work but luckily, for the community of Bosmont, these two are not going away without a fight. DM

Read more in Daily Maverick: The Actionists

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 www.theactionists.co.za or email [email protected].

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

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