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Getting policy makers to hear community voices

[Editor’s note: This post was written by Rebecca Pointer, Information and Communication Officer at the Institute for Poverty, Land and Agrarian Studies (PLAAS), University of the Western Cape. She shares how community activists were able to successfully use a video produced by PLAAS  to change the direction of a policy and improve their own situation]

When PLAAS Senior Researcher Dr Barbara Tapela began her field work in Ponghola Dam in northern KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, she had planned to do straight forward focus group discussions in a community hall to find out about their concerns with water access. But before planning such a workshop, she was taken to the area where people were living, and she suddenly felt a strong urge to document what she witnessed there, as she felt this could have broader impact than simply presenting academic papers at academic conferences. The story was compelling!

Since she had not planned for such documentation, she simply took out her cell phone and pressed the video record button and started filming. What she filmed that day, turned into one of the best examples of research communication reaching policy makers.

The people living in close proximity to Ponghola Dam in northern KwaZulu Natal, South Africa, were forcibly removed from their ancestral land during apartheid, in order to make way for the apartheid government to build the dam. Due to loss of agricultural land as a result of the forced removal, and the low lying areas being converted to a dam, communities have struggled to eke out an existence from the rocky mountain slopes around the dam ever since. In the absence of land to grow food, some of the communities (in the form of the Sizabantu Cooperative) have turned to fishing on the dam to bring in an income. But this has not been easy: white game lodge owners have harassed them, confiscated their boats and insisted that the area is only for recreational fishers (i.e. tourists).

The result of Dr Tapela’s documentation that day was some shaky, low budget footage, but it captured the essentials of the story, and on returning to the office and showing the video to the communications team, we felt passionate that we had to share this story, because it captured people speaking in their own voices and revealed (despite the shaky footage) how difficult water access truly was for this community. The video footage was much more convincing in telling the story of difficult water access than simply telling people with the spoken or written word about it.

As video was a new venture for PLAAS – none of our communication staff have video skills, and the format wasn’t considered a priority for academic information dissemination — it took some time to find the right person for the job, but when we got down to it we spent two days on scripting the footage and two days on video-editing before our dream for Cry Water! Struggles for water in Ntlalavini came to fruition. We soon had the product burned to DVD and loaded on YouTube. The Sizabantu Cooperative then took the DVD and started using it to inform their campaign to continue fishing and even extend their fishing rights on the Ponghola Dam.

The Chairperson of the Ponghola Dam Recreational Water User Association had already received a complaint from one Mr Malcolm, a private land owner in the area, who insisted that the impoverished communities living on the slopes around the dam should not be allowed to fish there and that fishing should be reserved for privileged tourists from outside the area.

However in a meeting with the Chairperson of the Ponghola Dam Recreational Water User Association on 14 March 2014, the community activists showed the video that the PLAAS team had produced. The response to the video was immediate; the minutes of the meeting reflect that ‘this video painted a clear picture on how the fishing operation is done in the dam and recommendations thereof’, and the meeting shifted from dealing with Mr Malcolm’s complaint to begin thinking through how the Sizabantu Fisherman could be better supported in their activities. The matter was also then referred to the provincial Member of the Executive Council (MEC) office, and to an outsourced environmental management NGO, the Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife, which has historically been responsible for inland fisheries in KwaZulu Natal.

The result is that instead of blocking access for the fishers, the local government is looking at ways to enhance the fishers entrepreneurial livelihoods activities, and as South Africa currently has no policy on artisanal fishing on inland dams, Ponghola Dam could also become a model for how inland fisheries are dealt with in future.

As for PLAAS, other researchers are now also using video to document and highlight aspects of their research, and this medium looks set to become important in the future of how we communicate. This particular video takes local governments officials who are typically confined in their offices straight to the communities concerned; the communities are able to make these officials see for the first time how they are living, what the challenges are, and how they refuse to passively accept their poverty, but instead strive against incredible odds to eke their own livelihoods. In some way, the grittiness of the video, contributes to conveying the message.

This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Thanks, Rebecca, for sharing such a concrete and illuminating experience on how we can improve the way we communicate research using possibilities that are really at hand for most of us. I am increasingly convinced on the need to show leaders and decisions makers the direct impact of their decisions (or of not taking them)on the life of very real people. Audiovisual communications is key to do so!
    Also, your experience signals another direction that we need to further explore when thinking about the links between politics and ideas: working with other relevant stakeholders such as NGOs (in your case the cooperative) so that knowledge becomes something we can all add to the table, not just think tanks and universities. We could certainly learn more from you on how to better do this!

  2. Rebecca says:

    Thanks Vanessa, and sorry I did not reply sooner. For some reason it was not allowing me to reply – no doubt a technical glitch.

    A wonderful subsequent development top this story is that our Minister of Water Affairs visited the area after seeing the film and is now spearheading change in the area, plus referencing this as an important case study!

    For more info, follow here: http://www.plaas.org.za/news/cry-water-minister

    I also have a story of a blog that provoked a private Canadian mining company to invite our researcher to Zambia to hear the biz side of a land grab story… still ploughing away at my thesis tho, so hopefully I can write up later….

    Warm regards
    Rebecca

    • What an interesting new chapter of this story, Rebecca! Indeed a case study worth documenting, and a proof of the unexpected turns of policy influence and the need to provide us with larger timeframes, right? It would be very valuable for all of us if you can in the future update us on what decisions/changes were implemented by the Minister after the visit.
      Of course, we look forward to this second story, once you make good progress on your thesis, too.

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