By Ulrich Steenkamp, Earthlife Africa Nuclear Campaigner

When the Covid-19 pandemic and subsequent lockdown commenced during March of last year, one of the biggest problems communities faced was having a means to convey their grievances. With public meetings, demonstrations and picketing being banned due to lockdown restrictions, communities needed a new way to convey their stories to a wider audience.

Earthlife Africa saw this gap in raising awareness of grassroots level issues and decided to start a Storytelling campaign with stories coming from the various areas and community based organisations that Earthlife Africa engages with. In May of 2020, nine different representatives were selected from the different areas in Gauteng, Eastern Cape and Limpopo provinces to compile environmental justice and energy issues that they face as various communities.

The representatives or Storytelling champions have been capturing stories from their different areas according to different themes ranging from water and air pollution to electricity and energy issues. The stories are captured and composed from the champions’ perspective and their views are highlighted. Especially in the new normal we have been living in due to the pandemic.

The CoVid pandemic has exposed so many issues in our society. Probably one of the most glaring, at a time that almost everything is happening online, is South Africans’ lack of means and skills to leverage the digital space to improve their lives. In November, in an effort to address the 4IR gaps that hamper community engagement in national discussions, Earthlife Africa Johannesburg invited its Digital Storytelling Champions from Limpopo, Gauteng and Eastern Cape – grassroots activists working in energy and climate change – to learn a few basic photography and media skills.

Our world is changing. How we do things is changing, and we have to change with it if we hope to grab the opportunities that are being created. Digital storytelling is crucial to sharing our energy and climate change stories, here and with the global society. The online space must be leveraged, not only to amplify the unheard voices of affected communities and ensure that their stories are told, but we also want them to recognise the opportunities for personal and professional development that could result from learning these skills.

The core focus of the workshop was to improve Smartphone Photography skills. To ensure the group had enough subjects to practice on, we joined Mariette Liefferink from the Federation for a Sustainable Environment, on a mind-blowing excursion to the many abandoned mines scattered around the West Rand, from Krugersdorp to Randfontein. The Toxic Tour, as shocking as it was, was the highlight of the workshop, for everyone. We all learnt so much about how mining companies escape their responsibilities, leaving communities to live with the toxic waste from old and abandoned mines.

As we have been thrown into this changing world by the Covid-19 pandemic, it is very important that community voices and their stories do not get lost in the maelstrom of news and information out there. Our voices must be heard, and the ever-changing media world is one way of ensuring that our stories stand out. This workshop was aimed at amplifying these stories and teaching community members the different ways of sharing their stories more effectively in today’s digitised world. I believe that we are moving in the right direction.

Here’s what some of our participants had to say:

Zodwa Rannyadi says, “The media and photography workshop taught me that I must not be afraid to play around with my phone and that no information is useless no matter how small it is. On the other hand, the Toxic Tour taught me a lot about my country and how damaged it is, in terms of soil and water pollution, and not forgetting about the effects on our ozone layer, which is a cause of climate change.”

Pauline Mocumi says that she not only learned a lot about technology, but also how to tell a story with a photo without needing an explanation of what is happening at that particular place.

“On the toxic tour I learnt that there is so much damage caused by mine companies that take all the minerals and leave without rehabilitating those areas. That is why today we are faced with many issues such as climate change, floods and drought. The land, air and water are polluted resulting in people getting sick and others dying from many different illnesses,” says Mocumi.