The changing practice course located in Limpopo South Africa engages civil society organisations in a process where they reflect upon and work to enhance their activist practice. The organisations attending the course are  focused on the difficult work of protecting their water in an area with a high concentration of mines. (Follow this link for more background to this changing practice course). The mentorship meetings were held in July 2017 to check in with organisations, get feedback on their experience with the course thus far and assist with the upcoming presentations of the first course assignment. Jane Burt notes that the civil society organisations attending the course have defined their work in one of the following ways:

a) Developing a critical analysis of the cause of the problem

b) Piloting a process of change

Below is a report on one of the four meetings written by Jane Burt.

The discussions with the organisations at Burgersfort were very engaging. Often the process of working on Change Projects is: let the organisations engage and then collaboratively reflect on what the core gem of the Change Project is and then suggest ways in which the participants can pull out this gem and start polishing it. As a facilitator it is important not to take over the process of identifying the gem and polishing it for participants but rather, through a process of engaged dialogue work out what this is together. For example, Come-Act wrote a beautiful description of their work and mentioned at some point that they viewed themselves as ‘hosts’ to the mines and the mines were not behaving. This was a unique and important shift in the way communities spoke about mines in their areas and Come-Act and I [Jane] had a long conversation about what this shift meant. The conversation helped Come-Act to see that they were actually working on what it meant to host a mine and how they wanted their guest to behave. They also dialogued around what Come-Act was trying to do that would have benefit for the whole catchment and not just Come-Act. I [Jane] was able to reflect back to Come-Act, who were deeply embedded in their context, that they were testing how to use the social and labour plans and the water license as tools for monitoring mines. I suggested that it would be important to document both their successes and challenges as this would help other communities do the same. I [Jane] spent approximately 45 minutes with each group dialoging around their Change Projects. December and Stella then continued to work with the groups.

Below is a summary of where each project got to by the end of the mentorship session.

Critical analysis of the cause of the problems:

Some of the organisations are dealing with very complex and difficult (wicked problems). They are using the course to explore and document these problems in more depth and to see the documentation process as the first step towards mobilising action. What we expect to come out of these assignments is a careful articulation of the systemic problem that the organisations see in their area. Their learning is how to create this systemic picture and how to gather more detailed evidence of what is going on.

Examples of these projects are:

Itumaleng: Itumaleng are a relatively new organsiation of youth. The issues that they identify in their pre-course assignment and are beginning to further explore through their assignment 1 are the different kinds of illegal dumping of waste and the effect it is having on their water and soil. This illegal dumping ranges from suspicions of illegal dumping by mines, community businesses and schools and the problem of nappies.  They express this as an ‘unhealthy relationship to waste’ and that this unhealthy relationship is what is causing damage to people and the landscape. Their assignment one is setting out to try and carefully document what this relationship is and the damage it causes.

SEJN: SEJN is also dealing with illegal waste but they are coming at it from a different angle. They are directly concerned about water quality and that the pollution in the rivers also makes accessing clean water very difficult as people need to travel very far and boreholes have dried up. So a consequence of the water pollution is also a problem of water access.They are particularly concerned with what they call a ‘mine stream’. This is a small stream of polluted water that drains from the mines into the communities. Livestock drink from it and this often leads to livestock deaths. For their assignment 1 they want to carefully document what damages our water and how it affects us.

Piloting a process of change: Although all the Change Projects are looking at a change process some organisations have already come up with a potential process/method that they are using to try and bring about change. Examples of these from the middle catchment are:

Come –Act: Come act are taking on a mine around corporate compliance. They are using two documents around which they are building a monitoring case. These are:

  1. the social and labour plan
  2. Water licenses.

They have been able to get both documents from the mining company and are now going through them as well as gathering stories from people. They want to test whether it is possible to use these two documents to monitor the mines. I encouraged them to document what their challenges are as well as their successes as this is an important learning for everyone in the catchment.

MWC: The MWC is also testing an approach. They have a theory of change that if communties are more self-reliant they will be less likely to be coerced by local politicians or look for employment in mines. They also theorise that if people are self-reliant they will be more confident about standing up for their rights against the mines and other powerful roleplayers. They believe this self-reliance will be built by learning to grow your own food. What we discussed at the mentorship is that MWC are testing this theory by working with households to start home food gardens. They need to pay careful attention to what works and what doesn’t and what the challenges are to start home food gardens. How much it costs? What makes it difficult?

In our general feedback the group mentioned how difficult it is to engage with some people. The organisations spoke about how there is a lot of political tension in their areas and this makes it difficult to engage with community members. Local politicians are always engaging and often threatening people so there are high levels of distrust. When they went to speak about their Change Projects people want to know what political party they belonged to and why they were talking to them. After much discussion we agreed that having a badge identifying them as students would help.