Blog: Changing Practice in the Olifants

The Changing Practice course in the Olifants catchment is facilitated by EMG, accredited by the Environmental Learning Research Centre, Rhodes University 
and funded by AWARD through the USAID RESILIM O programme.

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Project: Corporate compliance for rehabilitation of the Highveld calcite waste dump, by Nthabiseng Mahlangu and Elvis Komane.

Elvis and NthabisengNthabiseng Mahlangu and Elvis Komane are from CULISA (Council of Land Informal Residence and Family Development South Africa) an organisation based in Emalahleni (meaning place of coal) in Mpumalanga. Their change project is looking at corporate compliance related to the Highveld Calcite Waste Dump, a legacy dump threatening the health of people and ecosystems in Ward 12 of Emalahleni Municipality. Nthabiseng and Elvis have visited the dump and surrounding communities, and gathered the following evidence:

“The dump consists of more than 17 million tons of calcite waste, surrounded by sink holes and toxic dams. The dump sits next to the main entrance gate of Vanchem Vanadium and looks exactly like a huge grey mountain about 40 meters long with no trees or any vegetation. It’s composed of soft sandy ash like particles which travel through wind and water interfering with animal, human life and the entire environment. During strong winds the particles are blown around and it looks like it is raining white shining dust. The dump's west edge has terrifying highly polluted waste water dams. When the white powder connects with water it forms something that looks like freezing ice (see picture below). Where ever the powder connects with the ground it causes serious havoc and nothing grows on it. The most affected communities are: Santa Village, Vosman community, Bubsection and Mpondozenkomo. The nearest houses particularly in Santa Village are most affected as their roof sheets are turning rusty and decaying. When you come close to the dump you can feel: skin irritation, eye irritation, breathing difficulties and headaches. Something needs to be done urgently to remove this dump”calcite ice

For their change project, Nthabiseng and Elvis are finding out as much as they can about the chemical composition and environmental impacts of the dump, with the intention of sharing this information with the affected communities to raise awareness. They have collected samples of soil, water and dump particles, and have given them to their fellow Changing Practice course participants, Fhumulani Mathivha and Ivo Yves from Young Water Professionals, to test the samples. This is a great example of participants on the course working together cooperatively, using their different skills and resources to bring about change.

They are also looking at the legal status of the dump, at what is required to bring about removal of the dump, rehabilitation of the land and water, and compensation for the affected communities. In the course of their research, they have been inspired to take the lessons they are learning about the Highveld calcite waste dump and apply them to all legacy dumps.                                   

“We then realised there is a loop hole in managing existing and legacy  dumps in South Africa due to policy issues and as CULISA we are busy preparing a draft policy frame work on proper management of all existing and legacy dumps in the Republic of South Africa.”

CULISA, you are doing such important, courageous work. Well done, and thank you.

Project: Addressing poverty through improving food and water security for community care centres in Tafelkop, by Caroline Rathokolo and Nelson Thaba.

Caroline and NelsonThe Khulumani Support Group is ‘a membership-based organisation of more than 100,000 victims and survivors of Apartheid-related gross human rights violations in South Africa’ ( Caroline Rathokolo and Nelson Thaba are members of Khulumani working in communities close to Tafelkop, in the Sekhukhune District Municipality in Limpopo. Their changing practice project is focussing on a number of community hubs in two areas: an orphanage, a community centre and a school in Ga-Botha, and a school and a feeding centre in Ga Kopa. They are trying to encourage and support the development of food gardens at the schools and in people’s own yards, and to connect the orphanage and feeding centres to wider networks of government and business, to enable them to receive greater support. They have experienced first hand that sufficient nutritious food and clean water is the first step towards alleviating poverty - it allows children to concentrate at school, and helps to keep them healthy and strong.

As changing practice participants, they are also using their growing confidence and networking skills to build important relationships between these care centres and officials in the Department of Social Development. In Caroline’s own words:

“On the 16 September 2016, I met a SASSA (South African Social Security Agency) employee from Groblersdal in a taxi to Mokopane. SASSA’s focus is to see every child, orphan, disabled person and old people getting grants. She referred me to another SASSA employee, who referred me to a social worker who went to the Ga-Botha orphanage centre to verify those orphans. She promised to help them by taking them to court case and to go through the long process of receiving the correct grant…

We want people to have small gardens in their homes, and the vegetables will help our community to get fresh products from the soil that will help them to prevent malnutrition and they can also sell the crops to generate an income to families…

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Speaking of poverty, in this area there are orphans who need serious intervention. There are matriculants who are at home due to a lack of finance to further their studies. We don’t want them to go in to deeper poverty. We want them to be change agents in these areas. We should work together with Department of Social Development, to build an NPO that will offer life skills, computer skills and other short term courses for free. Some of our achievements are that we managed to secure donations of sanitary pads, groceries, school shoes and stationery. We got these donations through our changing practice course”.

Caroline and Nelson are exploring the connections between poverty, nutrition, water security and community development, and are acting as dynamic agents of change in their communities. Well done, and keep up the great work.

IMG 4039Project: Understanding water supply issues and looking for solutions to disposable nappies and other domestic waste in Ga-Mampuru, Greater Tubatse Municipality, by Kedibone Ntobeng, Christine Mothupi and Tshepo Sibaya. 


Itumeleng Youth Project formed under the most tragic of circumstances. In Christine Mothupi’s words:

“When mining started, the population increased and the community started to grow. New sections were formed and water demand was now high while we only had one purification plant that supplied clean water. Everyone was looking for clean water from the water purification plant and then illegal connections started to occur. Some pipes started to leak, then water waste became high. The water purification plant stopped supplying the community with water because it couldn’t manage the whole village alone. The community started to look for a way to survive. Some people were forced to fetch water from the irrigation canal and some were fetching water from the Tubatse river which is too far away”.

 Tshepo Sibaya continues the story:

“Since 1995 the community was drinking water from the canal which was built mainly for irrigation but due to lack of water nearby people were forced to drink that water. In 2009 one morning tragedy hit the community. People died after drinking water from the canal which they had been drinking from for many years. Thirteen people died while hundreds more were hospitalized. The health department said it was cholera. We are not sure if it was cholera or poison …After that incident the community were mobilized under one theme: This cannot happen again”

Under huge pressure from the community, the Greater Tubatse municipality built storage dams and drilled boreholes, so that people were no longer forced to drink from the canal. However, there are currently insufficient taps and low water pressure, meaning that some sections get more water than others, leading to conflict between the sections. In two of the sections, people are once again relying on water from the canals and from the Tubatse River.

At the same time, the river that people are relying on is full of domestic waste. IYP has been investigating the reasons for this waste landing up in the river, with a particular focus on the huge number of disposable nappies in the landscape and in the river. 

Kedibone Ntobeng describes the history of disposable nappies and other domestic waste in her community:Itumeleng8

"In 1973 the Mampuru clan and the community members were forced to move from Brakfontain (Magagamatala) to Steelpoort (Boschkloof). At that time the population was less and they did not think about the future and how they are going to manage their domestic waste - at that time they did not have too much domestic waste. They were using traditional customs. It was the introduction of modern customs that caused more waste. For example, women were using cloth nappies for children and they were washing them… In the 90s mining started and the population began to increase and job opportunities became available for more people. Some people could now afford to buy those disposable nappies, but you still never ever saw disposable nappies on the street or in dongas… When disposable nappies decreased in price, many more people started to buy them. That’s when people started to realize that disposable nappies do not decay. Most parents decided to throw them far away from people. In 2006 the Lion smelter phase one started and the population increased again. People from different places came in. Business started to increase. A  tavern and renting rooms were built while we still didn’t have a dumping site. The tavern started to stay open 24/7, and waste from bottles and cans increased in large numbers. Then waste started to be unmanageable as sections continued to develop and grow, and there was no space for people to dump. This is when people started to see the river banks as a dumping site and the river as a waste transporter.”

As part of their changing practice project, IYP has done a door to door awareness campaign and cleaning campaign. They have cleared disposable nappies from dongas and river banks, and requested the municipality to collect the nappies for removal to a landfill, but they have not yet had a response. 


Itumeleng Youth Project is doing important and challenging work in a community that has suffered terribly as a result of a lack of safe secure water. The issue of disposable nappy waste is a critical one that many communities are grappling with around the country. Keep up the fantastic work IYP.



Come-ACT (Communities in Mining and Environmental Activism) is based in Burgersfort. 

FullSizeRender 6Change Project: Rules for good guests - how host communities can hold mines accountable, by Elton Thobejane and Provia Sekome. 

Description: Twickenham mine is a large open pit platinum mine owned by Anglo American Platinum, about 40 km away from Burgersfort in the Greater Tubatse Municipality, Limpopo. It falls within the middle catchment of the Olifants River. The village of Morapaneng, which is situated between the Twickenham and Hackney shafts of the Twickenham mine, is deeply affected by the mining activities nearby, through the mines impact on water, air, roads, social cohesion and more . Come-ACT has decided to focus on the issue of corporate compliance  - to what extent is the mine keeping to its obligations in terms of the Social and Labour Plans and other commitments it has made to the community? Another way of asking this question is: is the mine being a good guest, and treating its hosts, in this case the Morapaneng community, with respect and care? And if not - how can the hosts hold their guest accountable for their bad behaviour? 


Extract from Come-Act's Assignment 1: 

"The entire community relies on one borehole and the nearby Motse river as sources of water, come act mapalmost all the bore holes in the village have dried up...The access roads to the village are also dusty and un-driveable making it very difficult for the communities to access services such as health care and many others. The only tarred road which is linking the two shafts is also heavily potholed and no one seem to care about its impact on road users and the nearby communities, especially young people who endanger their lives on a daily basis trying to fill in the potholes with sands because they see it as an economic opportunity... there is little to show for this community’ portion of benefit for the mining activities happening in their land.

As we walked around the neighbouring villages we realised that the houses are cracked in almost every household, people are trying to grow vegetables such as spinach, sweet potatoes and tomatoes but the products are not of good quality and we suspect that it is because of the poor water quality. The relocated graves and tombstones are falling apart, people were forcefully relocated to areas where the land is not suitable for human habitation. One could feel the heartbeat of a community that is betrayed, divided, impotent but angry towards the mining company.

We then decided to request access to information pertaining to the operation (Social and Labour Plans and its Annual reports, the Water Use Licence and Environmental Impact Assessment reports) through the Promotion of Access to Information Act of 2000 from the relevant departments, so that we are more able to monitor, assess, hold the mine to account and enforce compliance"

Whatsapp updates:

"The two community based organisations Come Act and SCMAC are collaborating to challenge the Twickenham mine regarding the disposal of the reserves as it continues even today.
The two organisations have submitted a PAIA application to the DMR to request the maintenance plan and the agreement with the DMR. We also requested their new Mine Works programme because Care and Maintenance is actually a part of the Mine Works programme .
Legal Resources Center has also written a letter on our behalf to the mine to request clarity and supporting documents."

Keep up the great work Come-Act. Your findings about how the host community of Morapaneng can hold their guests - the Twickenham mine - accountable, will be extremely useful for many other host communities. 

Jane Burt and Jessica Wilson wrote a paper for the ALARA (Action Learning, Action Research Association) congress in 2015, based on lessons from the first Changing Practice course for SAWC activists. That paper has just been published in the ALARA congress proceedings, and the full text is available HERE. 

Here is an excerpt from the paper:

The social learning approach adopted in this project brought about change – and in some instances profound transformation – at multiple levels. Through a careful process of observation and reflection, the project provides insights into what changed within individuals, between people, at the level of structure and between people and the natural world. For example, when an activist researcher’s confidence was built through gaining a sense of identity based on the deep wisdom inherent in his African ancestry, he discovered agency within himself and was able to articulate concerns to government officials on the importance of including spiritual water users in Catchment Management Forums. This insight has catalysed ongoing conversation in his organisation and shifted their worldview to include a healing relationship between people and rivers.


Finally, the course, like all courses based on an action learning ethos, is not expert driven but a dialogic space to introduce ideas of how to read the world which includes context, history and the importance of place (some of which are generated by researchers and other knowledge producers and shared with participants). This was a new experience for many of the participants. One participant, when interviewed about the course, commented, “Other courses like the “X” course someone stands in front of you and tells you what to do. Here we are asked to pull something out and up. It is challenging but it comes from in ourselves.” This sense of ownership of knowledge produced and used is the core vision of the course. The knowing that is generated (where generation of knowledge also means being able to draw on many knowledge systems in a meaningful way) belongs with the people who generate it and infiltrates their actions in the places and spaces within which they move. It is hoped that that by the end of this course, the learning and knowledge that is gained by the individuals and the collective will be an authentic expression of the people and landscapes out of which this learning and knowing emerged.

Changing practice: A course to support water activists in South Africa (PDF Download Available). Available from: 

SEJN is based in Burgersfort, Greater Tubatse Municipality, Limpopo, in the middle Olifants catchment. They have been organising under the name SEJN for 6 months, but their members have been active community monitors associated with Benchmark Foundation for 5 years, as part of a network of Southern African communities living near mines.

FullSizeRender 1Change Project: Water pollution in the Motse River, by Eustine Matsepane, Mmathapelo Thobejane and Tokelo Mahlakwana

Description: For their changing practice project, SEJN are investigating the sources and impacts of mining pollution in the rivers close to where they live - in particular, the impact on livestock, who frequently die after drinking from the mine streams. They have spoken to herders, farmers and elders in their communities, and have recently started working with a student from the University of Venda to help them take water samples and tissue samples from the dead cattle. They have also lobbied Department of Water and Sanitation to come and take water samples and report back to them on the state of the water in the streams and boreholes, and are doing an excellent job of holding DWS to account. 

Below are some excerpts from the changing practice Whatsapp group

Mmathapelo (26 June):

Good morning comrades, I received a call this morning from Limpopo Dept of Water and Sanitation. We made an appointment and they will do water testing next week... SEJN and other organisations around our area are welcome to come and witness the process, we will also have a team of livestock owners. Patience pays at last. 

Tokelo (5 July):

Today we were meeting with this guy from DWS. The purpose of the meeting was to make relationships between DWS, the communities, ward committees, ward counselors, water committees, CDWs ( Community Development Workers) and SDM( Sekhukhune District Municipality). The communities were reporting on how they suffer to get water especially from bore holes, and dams that are made by the municipality. This is when I started to see that our DWS don't do their jobs because they don't know where the problems are. We started to ask him whether he remembers the time they tested the bore holes and dams, and this showed him that we do know that the water we drink is very contaminated. The meeting was great because they said they will come back after two weeks with responsible people.

Mmathapelo (18 August):IMG 4250

Today the [University of Venda] student and SEJN members started the day by collecting water samples from the upper catchment of the Motse river next to Lolo mountain (Mmatadi) where we collected fresh water. We proceeded to a mine stream, where Motse River meets with the mine stream and the Olifants River. We are hoping to get the results by the end of the month.💪💪💪.......... 

You can read more about SEJN's fantastic work on their community monitors blog. 

One of the intentions of this blog is to profile the work of the organisations and participants taking part in the Olifants Catchment Changing Practice course. This week, we will focus on Action Voices, from Emalahleni in the Upper Olifants catchment. 

Change Project: 'Being a voice for the Bragspruit wetland' by Susan Boledi, Lorraine Kakaza & Colen Jojobe. 


Description: Action Voices have been involved, for a long time, in monitoring the streams and wetlands around the sewerage in canalEmalahleni communities as Benchmark environmental monitors. They have chosen the Bragspruit wetland as the area they would like to work on, in more depth, for their Change Project. The wetland is situated near the KG Mall, near the N4, between Vosman location Extension 3 & 5 and the Emsagweni location. When speaking to them about their Change Project they report how ‘it is hopeless’. People have given up that anything will change and are no longer interested in engaging.  The wetland is much worse than it was. In their pre-course assignment they report on how the wetland is filled with animal skulls, dead animals, sewerage and waste that is thrown away, in the informal community, is washed into the wetland. Spiritual practitioners used to practice here but they don’t do so anymore. People that live next to the wetland and have small gardens complain that when they use the water from the wetland their crops die. As it is an informal settlement houses are often flooded in the Summer months when the rain comes and gardens are flooded and die. Community members report that when the rains come the water smells. The communities often don’t have any tap water and so they are forced to use water from the wetland. Action Voices thinks that the water is contaminated by the abandoned mine in the area which affects the communities living near it. 


Whatsapp updates: Throughout the month of June, the changing practice course participants have been sharing updates on their work via Whatsapp. The following are excerpts from Action Voices' whatsapp reports:

"Today I was going to town when I was about to approach Standard Bank I smelt a bad smell, it was a terrible smell. I was wondering what could it be. Guess what, it was a sewer. I couldn’t believe what I saw with my eyes. I went straight to the municipality and reported it. They told me that they are going to attend it tomorrow. I’m not happy at all because next to it there are shops that sell food and potato chips. Customers are no longer buying. They ran away and again there are no signs of danger and I’m 100% sure that when children are passing there they will be in danger. I have reported many unattended sewer but none of them are being fixed. Two weeks ago there was someone who lost their life in a sewer."
Communities living next to the mines suffer for the rest of their lives. It’s was so painful to hear people complaining about the mines that operate next to them. All these mines are open cast. They just operate without the community concerns. Instead they create more problems like teenage pregnancy, drugs and unemployment. They don’t hire local people and this affects the youth. So this creates division. One woman says “we had a challenge of water. We don’t have water but when you pass the mine you will see at the washing plant they do have water. We breath black air from the coal dust everyday. We don’t have water and sanitation but mines got everything on their side".On the 8th June I was at Grooivlei farm doing the survey. The more I get to a household I felt like crying. It’s really difficult to see people living in bad situation at the same time they are surrounded by mines ..the community they are always happy to see me because they share their stories with me".

Module 2 coming up: Next week, all the participants and course facilitators will be gathering in Burgersfort for Module 2, where we will be sharing progress, delving deeper into our histories to understand how we got to this point, and how we know what we know. It will also be an opportunity to offer support and solidarity to one another, and to 'refuel' with new inspiration and energy. 


This post includes excerpts from Jane Burt's June project report - read the full report here

In late May 2017 the first module of the Olifants Catchment ‘Changing Practice’ course was held in Witbank. The theme of the first module was Investigating context and practice

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 shared how the course has been designed as a transformative and even transgressive learning process within an emancipatory pedagogy. 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.  If you are interested in learning more about transgressive learning, head over to the T-learning network website here.

From the previous course we realised that participants have often experienced trauma because of the nature of South African society, or specifically 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 centering. We introduced what are 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. These exercises were very helpful ways to start each day, and to centre ourselves after particularly challenging sessions. The participants were wonderfully open to these exercises, and shared that they found them hugely beneficial.



One such challenging session was a fieldtrip which CULISA and Action Voices organised, called the ‘toxic tour’. This 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 be of deep concern to everyone in the Olifants catchment. We ran a healing relaxation session after the tour as many of us felt overwhelmed by what we had witnessed.

 toxic tour2

The toxic tour

We also ran a gender dialogue, where the question posed 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. 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’.

Course coordinator and lead facilitator Jane Burt shared these reflections following Module One:

Running this course is a privilege, a painful and joyful privilege because to fully engage in and immerse oneself in a pedagogy for the oppressed means owning up to the oppressor and oppressed internally and externally. This does not only mean the individual oppressor and oppressed but the way in which inequity and injustice is structured into the institutions and organisations of which we are a part, the cultures out of which we emerge and the relationships we engage in and form. It also emerges out of the experience of the non-human and the slow violence that is being inflicted upon the earth and so ourselves. Running this course continually teaches us this and forces us to be constantly alert, to continually read the world and, more importantly, engage in the muddling through that is the journey towards social and environmental justice. One of our co-facilitators sent a thank you note after Module One, in which she shared with us how her mother had met Paulo Freire at a conference once and asked him for some advice on her work. He said he can’t give advice, he could only talk in parables, and one parable that came to mind was that as educators we have to enter the mud together and only once we are all fully covered, can a teacher stand up. 

This post is adapted from Jane Burt's monthly report - read the full version here.

Following a successful two year 'Changing Practice' course with participants from the South African Water Caucus, this year EMG's water and climate change programme, in partnership with Rhodes University's ELRC and AWARD, are running a 'Changing Practice' course with water activists from throughout the Olifants catchment, in Mpumalanga and Limpopo. 

The first module went ahead successfully from the 22nd to the 25th of May, in Emalahleni. What really makes this course exciting is that it brings together activists from throughout a single catchment - the Olifants catchment - and although all of the organisations represented focus on a diverse range of issues, they are deeply connected through the shared river they are all striving to protect. Jane Burt, the course facilitator, describes the group as 'deeply passionate, committed and doing incredible work already'. They have all already been participating in the CSO indabas hosted by AWARD - you can learn more about this initiative on the 'Our Olifants' website

The organisations represented by participants on the course are Action Voices, Come-Act, CULISA, Itumeleng Youth Project, Khulumani Support Group, Mpumalanga Water Caucus, Sekhukhune Environmental Justice Network and South African Young Water Professionals. 

In the coming weeks and months, we will be profiling the different participants and organisations, and the important work they are doing - watch this space!

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